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Bush Administration Backs Israel’s Self-Defense Tactics

By Norman Kempster
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- washington

After months of urging Israel to act with “restraint,” the Bush administration abandoned that word Monday and endorsed Israel’s right to defend itself in any way it sees fit.

“The president’s point of view is that Israel is a sovereign government,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. “Israel has the right to defend herself.”

Fleischer and U.S. State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker insisted that despite the latest surge in violence, the administration had not abandoned hope for a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. But their comments marked a sharp change in direction from earlier U.S. focus on efforts to mediate a cease-fire that would be acceptable to both sides.

Middle East experts said the administration’s stance, unless it is modified soon, would damage Washington D.C.’s effort to keep Arab nations in its coalition against Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida terrorist network.

Reeker refused to even acknowledge the word “restraint”. “What we’re saying is, we understand Israel is responsible for their security, and that they need to take the decisions regarding self-defense.”

At the same time, Fleischer and Reeker, who read their answers from the same carefully prepared script, insisted that the administration had not given Sharon a “green light” to destroy Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.

But Sharon left little doubt that he believes he obtained Washington’s support for an escalation of military action, not just against terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but also against key facilities of Arafat’s authority.

Bush administration officials insist that Arafat remains a potential partner for peace talks with Israel. But they made it clear they are fed up with his repeated failures to crack down on anti-Israel terrorism.

Reeker said said Arafat not only must arrest the perpetrators of the weekend terrorist attacks in Israel but completely destroy the Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations. That goes beyond anything Washington, D.C. has demanded in the past and sets the bar higher than the Palestinian leader can reach.

“Everybody is fed up with Arafat,” said Edward S. Walker, former head of the U.S. State Department’s Middle East Bureau.

But Walker, now president of the Middle East Institute, added: “I certainly hope the Israelis keep in mind who the enemy is. I don’t think the focus at this point should be on Arafat or the Palestinian Authority. The focus should be on the two terrorist organizations.”

If Sharon does go after Arafat, it was not clear what the administration would do about it. Most officials insisted that the next step is up to Arafat. If he does not take dramatic action against Hamas and Islamic Jihad Washington might be ready to leave him to his fate.

“This is a time for Chairman Arafat ... to do everything in his power to find those who murdered innocent Israelis and bring them to justice,” Fleischer said. “Only time will tell if Chairman Arafat honors that call.”

Some Middle East experts said that Sharon’s military crackdown on the Palestinians soon could damage larger U.S. interests by driving a wedge between the administration and the Arab governments that are a vital part of the U.S. counter-terrorism strategy.