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Daylight between White House, State on Nablus attack

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  • Josh Pollack
    Washington Post From White House, State: 2 Responses to Israeli Attack By Alan Sipress Washington Post Staff Writer Wednesday, August 1, 2001; Page A01
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 1, 2001
      Washington Post
      From White House, State: 2 Responses to Israeli Attack
      By Alan Sipress
      Washington Post Staff Writer
      Wednesday, August 1, 2001; Page A01

      http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A14166-2001Jul31.html

      The State Department "strongly deplored" an Israeli helicopter attack
      yesterday on the office of a militant Palestinian group that killed eight
      people, including two children, but the White House issued a more measured
      statement urging that both sides abide by a U.S.-brokered cease-fire
      agreement.

      This marked the second time in as many days that the White House was more
      reluctant than State to weigh in aggressively on the mounting turmoil in the
      Middle East. On Monday, the White House played down the prospect that the
      United States would soon send monitors to the region, an initiative that
      American diplomats have been trying to sell to Israeli and Palestinian
      leaders.

      Former American diplomats attributed the gap between the State Department
      and the White House to their different audiences. While State does daily
      business with foreign governments alarmed by Israeli tactics and the surging
      violence, the White House has its sights on domestic politics and the
      sensitivities of a pro-Israel Congress.

      "I see a White House that is very reluctant to move ahead in a way that
      crosses the wires of its domestic agenda," said Edward S. Walker Jr., who
      was assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs until this spring.

      The comments by Bush administration officials came as they grappled with the
      reality that a truce brokered two months ago by CIA Director George J. Tenet
      has failed to take hold and a breakthrough in peace talks seems remote.

      At the State Department, which has repeatedly criticized Israeli
      assassinations of suspected Palestinian militants, officials used especially
      tough language yesterday after the attack on a Hamas political office in
      Nablus.

      "We deeply regret and strongly deplore the killing of civilians," said State
      Department spokesman Charles F. Hunter. "We condemn terror in the strongest
      possible terms. The Israeli action today, however, was excessive. The attack
      represents an escalation, is highly provocative and makes efforts to restore
      calm much more difficult."

      Hunter said yesterday's violence represented a "new and dangerous
      escalation" and warned, "Both sides should recognize that down the path of
      escalation and retaliation lies disaster." He added that Deputy Secretary of
      State Richard L. Armitage had raised American concerns about the killings
      with Israeli cabinet secretary Gideon Saar, who began a visit to Washington
      yesterday.

      Shortly after State Department officials issued their condemnation of
      Israeli tactics, President Bush made a far more restrained statement.

      "I wish the levels of violence were lower than they are today. A couple of
      weeks ago it looked like we had made progress, and then the violence spiked.
      That means the United States will continue to stay actively involved and
      urging there to be calm and urging both parties to resist the temptation to
      resort to violence," Bush said.

      White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called for the two sides to follow
      recommendations for restoring mutual confidence that were made by an
      international commission led by former senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine).
      "When the president talks about a cessation of violence and a cease-fire, it
      means no killing of anybody. And of course that applies to civilians,"
      Fleischer said.

      A day earlier, Fleischer had also struck a different tone than his
      counterparts in Foggy Bottom. He said U.S. monitors would not be sent to the
      region until after a lasting cease-fire had taken hold and the United
      States, working with other governments, had made progress in carrying out
      the Mitchell panel recommendations. "Only at that time will the question of
      monitors possibly come up," he said Monday.

      Hunter, by contrast, spoke the same day of moving "as quickly as possible
      into the next phase of the Mitchell committee process." Under the plan
      envisioned at the State Department, the administration would dispatch a team
      of about 10 monitors once it was able to win agreement from the sides.

      Samuel W. Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said the White House
      and the State Department have long had different considerations when
      confronted with Middle East violence. The State Department is more likely to
      reflect the concerns that American diplomats hear from European and Arab
      capitals about Israeli infractions of international law. The White House is
      more attuned to American politics and the impact that a policy critical of
      Israel could have on domestic priorities.

      He said this tension is likely to increase as the Palestinian uprising draws
      a sharper Israeli response. "The more bloodshed there is, the more the
      United States will face a dilemma of this kind," Lewis said.

      Walker said State has been "way out in front" in criticizing Israel for
      extrajudicial killings. Yet as long as Israeli officials spot daylight
      between State and the White House, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government
      is unlikely to temper the practice, according to Walker, who is president of
      the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.

      Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Regev said the raid on Hamas "was active
      self-defense. We're stopping them from continuing to attack us."

      The White House, meanwhile, is hesitant to pursue a Middle East policy that
      could offend Congress and undercut Bush's domestic agenda, especially when
      the balance of power on Capitol Hill is so delicate, Walker said.

      The pro-Israel sympathies of Congress were most recently manifest on
      Thursday when a House Middle East subcommittee peppered William J. Burns,
      Walker's successor, with questions about why the administration was not
      taking a harder line with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

      � 2001 The Washington Post Company

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