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Bush: Israel ‘Must Not Feel Constrained’ in Self-Defense

By Richard W. Stevenson and Carl Hulse

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

President Bush said on Monday that he had told Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel that his country “must not feel constrained” in defending itself, signaling that the United States would not condemn Sharon’s decision to launch an airstrike inside Syria in response to the latest suicide bombing in Israel.

A day after Israel attacked what it said was a terrorist training camp in Syria in retaliation for the suicide bombing in northern Israel on Saturday that killed 19 people plus the bomber, Bush suggested that the responsibility for breaking the escalating cycle of violence now rests primarily with the Palestinian leadership.

“I made it very clear to the prime minister, like I have consistently done, that Israel’s got a right to defend herself, that Israel must not feel constrained in defending the homeland,” Bush said at the White House in response to a reporter’s question.

Israel’s strategy of hitting a target inside Syria raised the question of whether Sharon’s government had adopted Bush’s policy of focusing on not just terrorists but also states that harbor them. The lack of explicit criticism from the United States did nothing to dispel the impression that the White House, after discouraging Israel from assuming that it could embrace the Bush doctrine to justify its battle against Palestinian extremists, was now doing nothing to stop Israel from doing so.

The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said Israel had conducted the raid without informing the United States in advance, and that the administration was not giving Sharon permission to take his nation’s fight against terrorism into other countries.

“We’re not a traffic light,” he said.

But other administration officials said the United States was keenly aware of the parallels.

“There is some applicability here of the Bush doctrine,” one administration official said.

Bush did say he had also told Sharon, during a phone conversation on Sunday after the Israeli attack inside Syria, that “it’s very important that any action that Israel take should avoid escalation and creating higher tensions.”

But the president then pointedly turned to the subject of the Palestinian Authority and, without naming him, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. Bush, who has written off any chance that Arafat would advance the prospects for peace, has been pushing the Palestinians to create a government with a prime minister who could assume enough power to crack down on the violent groups like Islamic Jihad and Hamas that have been responsible for most suicide bombings in Israel.

“In order for there to be a Palestinian state, the Palestinian Authority must fight terror and must use whatever means is necessary to fight terror,” Bush said, pounding his fist for emphasis.

Bush spoke during an appearance before reporters with President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya, who was making a state visit to the White House to discuss economic aid, trade, and the fight against terrorism.

American officials said Monday that the camp in Syria was known to them as having been a training base for various Palestinian terrorist organizations.