By William Safire, October 25, 2001
WASHINGTON – To read the headlines, you would think a major rift was
growing between the U.S. and its only dependable ally in the Middle East. Our
State Department “demands” that Israel end its forays into West Bank terrorist
centers and promise never to respond punitively again.
Israel “rebuffs” this angry order and “defies” the U.S. spokesman. Then
Colin Powell brushes aside President Bush’s cautious “as quickly as possible”
and escalates the call for withdrawal to “immediate.”
But the Bush administration knows full well that Israel cannot turn the other
cheek when one of its cabinet ministers is assassinated. And it knows that at a
moment when the U.S. is dispatching bombers and soldiers to kill the assassins
of 6,000 of our citizens harbored by the Taliban in Afghanistan, it is the height
of hypocrisy to demand that our ally refrain from hunting down killers harbored
by the P.L.O.
Bush’s advisers are also well aware that to insist publicly that Ariel Sharon do
as we say, not as we do, begs for a “rebuff.”
Even Israel’s dovish former foreign minister sees through it: “Imagine
now that Sharon says, `Well, all right, I withdraw,’ ” notes Shlomo Ben-Ami.
“Then what will be the image of Israel in the Arab world? Its deterrent
capability, its steadfastness would be seriously eroded.”
If the U.S. order to withdraw is both patently hypocritical and certain to be
rejected, why are Colin Powell and his spokesman sent out to beat up on the
One answer is obvious: This is supposed to show the Arab “street” that the
U.S. is not pro-Israel, that we are evenhanded brokers of Palestinian peace. Our
message is that it’s O.K. for Pakistanis, Egyptians and Saudis to be with us
against the bin Laden terrorists in Afghanistan because the U.S. does not blame
Arafat when suicide bombers kill Israeli teenagers.
Another answer is “coalition building.” For example: Because Iran is angry at
being used as the route for the Taliban’s heroin exports, and because its clerics
also despise Iraq’s Saddam Hussein – then maybe if we publicly castigate Israel
and privately condone Iran’s support of Hezbollah terrorism, “moderate”
ayatollahs will not oppose our terrorist hunt in Afghanistan.
The charade in Washington is accompanied by a wink toward supporters of
Israel in the U.S.: this “demand” supposedly helps Sharon politically.
By making it possible for him to strike a courageous pose of standing up
to the U.S. pressure, we help Sharon solidify his hard right, cool the dissension
on his soft left and increase his popularity among embattled Israelis in the
At the same time, columnists of my ilk are sent word that – Powell’s
ostensible tilt toward Arafat to the contrary – the president’s hawkish heart is
still in the right place.
All this diplomacy by deflection is too clever by three-quarters. Just as corrupt
Arab potentates try to protect themselves from the fury of their downtrodden
subjects by fanning hatred of the U.S. and the West, we are trying, through our
charade of selective antiterrorism, to deflect that hatred over to Israel
exclusively. (Don’t blame us, it goes – see how we’re pressuring the Jews on
Such buck-passing won’t work. With logic, followers of Osama bin Laden will
say, “By killing thousands of Americans, we got the U.S. to put pressure on
Israel. In the same way, by panicking Americans with the threat of germ
warfare, we will force the infidels to abandon their Jewish ally. And then . . .”
The consequence of our misbegotten diplomacy of deflection would be
intensified attacks on America. The way to discourage war on our homeland is
to show no weakness, to demonstrate forcefully that atrocities committed here
gain no victories in the Middle East or anywhere.
This year Arafat invited the terrorist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
to move from Damascus to the West Bank. The P.F.L.P. proudly claims that its
hit men murdered the Israeli cabinet minister, an act of war. Israel is obliged to
go after his killers just as we are duty bound to go after the killers of
The troops will withdraw in a couple of days. But the proper response to our
ally’s self-defense is to understand Israel’s lonely anguish and applaud its
resolve. Such a principled expression of presidential steadfastness should be, in
Secretary Powell’s word, “immediate.”