Targeting terrorists: Bush's stance not so clear in Mideast

Posted: Thursday, June 12, 2003

WASHINGTON The words were uttered by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but they could just as easily have come from President Bush: ''We will make no concessions to terror.''

Sharon and Bush may speak from the same book when it comes to fighting what they both call the ''evil'' of terrorism. Still, when Israel tried to kill a Hamas extremist this week, the president criticized Israelis for taking the kind of action he has ordered against terrorists and other foes of America.

His fledgling Mideast peacemaking effort in jeopardy, only days after it seemed to hold much promise, Bush said the helicopter attack that wounded Abdel Aziz Rantisi and killed a bodyguard and a bystander was troubling and counterproductive. ''I emphasize all parties must behave responsibly,'' he said.

The United States has its own recent record of trying to kill terrorists wherever they can be found, of wanting Osama bin Laden ''dead or alive'' or with his ''head on a platter,'' and of making Saddam Hussein a personal target at each opportunity during the Iraq war.

Bush cast the struggle against terrorism as friend vs. foe after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But that all-or-nothing approach has made way, as it always does in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for something in between.

''The U.S. is not in a position to be telling countries, particularly a country like Israel, that this is wrong behavior,'' said Scott Lasensky, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. ''We did it in Yemen. We did it in other places.''

Even if the distinction could not be divined from Bush's measured words, Lasensky said the president was not reproaching Israel over the principle of trying to kill a militant but rather the timing coming as part of a renewed cycle of violence on both sides.

On Wednesday, a suicide bomber attacked a Jerusalem bus, killing at least 16 people, and Israeli helicopters killed seven people in Gaza, among them two more Hamas militants, in a further shredding of the U.S.-brokered ''road map'' to peace worked out last week.

Israeli officials called Rantisi a ''master terrorist'' and stood by their decision to go after him as part of an effort to prevent more Hamas attacks on Israel. Secretary of State Colin Powell amplified on Bush's displeasure, saying the attack could ''delay the kind of progress we are hoping for as we move down the road map.''

Despite Washington's nearly 30-year-old ban on assassinations, the government has vigorously hunted people it regards as terrorists and has tried to kill them. Vice President Dick Cheney said he'd accept bin Laden's head; Bush wanted the al-Qaida leader in any fashion.

In November, an unmanned CIA Predator plane fired a missile at a car in Yemen, killing a man described as al-Qaida's top operative in that country and five other people. Yemen's leadership was cooperating in the war on terrorism.

Defending the targeted killing, Bush's national security adviser described a nearly open-ended mandate to fight a ''new kind of war'' on unconventional battlefields.

''The president has given broad authority to U.S. officials in a variety of circumstances to do what they need to do to protect the country,'' Condoleezza Rice said.

Bush and Sharon are almost indistinguishable in their anti-terrorism rhetoric. The president says it's his mission to strike terrorism and ''hold accountable all who harbor it and all who support it.''

The prime minister says ''there will never be any shelter for terrorists, their abettors or dispatchers.''

Even so, nuances won't be shooed away in Mideast policy-making. James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation said Bush's criticism of the Israeli attack was meant to shore up the moderate Palestinian leadership and balance a U.S. policy that Palestinians believe is skewed toward Israel.

Lasensky said that although the leaders may view terrorism in the same stark terms, the situations are different. The Israeli-Palestinian struggle is a longstanding one between two peoples over nationhood and territory, he said. ''That is not 9-11.''

Calvin Woodward has covered national affairs since 1986.

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