Netanyahu: Powell's Effort
'Won't Amount To Anything'

By David Lightman
Washington Bureau Chief
Hartford Courant - Connecticut

WASHINGTON - The very presence Wednesday of hard-line former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly criticizing American peace efforts - right in the halls of the U.S. Congress - seemed to send a strong signal that this country's lawmakers remain heavily tilted toward Israel.
Yes, most members of Congress point out nuances in their positions and, yes, they back President Bush's call for Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory. And they are eager to see Secretary of State Colin Powell's peace mission succeed.
But the American sympathy toward Israel was unquestionable Wednesday. There was little apparent protest as the dogged Netanyahu made the Washington rounds on behalf of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, speaking to a group of senators - with introductions by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn. - and later talking to members of the media.
As Powell prepares for likely meetings Friday with Sharon and Saturday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Netanyahu signaled his distaste for much of the process, saying Powell's effort "won't amount to anything."
And, the Israeli emissary cleverly used the United States' own arguments for fighting terrorism, telling senators, "there can never be a political solution for terror. You have to defeat terrorism militarily in order to have a political process." He called for the expulsion of Arafat, a move the White House opposes.
Lieberman, one of the early voices calling for Powell to visit the Mideast, distanced himself from Netanyahu's more incendiary remarks.
But, said Lieberman spokesman Dan Gerstein, "he agrees with Netanyahu on a lot. The senator does not believe the peace process is doomed, but he is very pessimistic."
To Arab-American Institute President James Zogby, the meeting demonstrated just what's wrong with Congress' attitude toward the Mideast.
"We have a president who took some time and care to get to this point," Zogby said, "and in the middle of it, this character comes to town to speak against him."
Zogby called Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a key organizer of the Netanyahu appearance, a "sicko."
Netanyahu's disdain of the peace process is not shared by most congressional lawmakers, but his call for strong U.S. support of Israel is.
Most lawmakers put it this way: They think Israel has a right to defend itself. They want peace. And they are not anti-Palestinian, but they are anti-terrorist.
"The fact of the matter is that Sharon will do, as we see him doing, what is good for Israel," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.
Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., who rarely agrees with Armey on anything, echoed the Republican's thoughts, speaking of "the critical need of Israeli people to be free from terrorism and violence." Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., called the Israeli attacks on Palestinian targets "something every American can understand."
These attitudes are important because if Powell is to succeed, he has to have united American political support. That such support is staunchly pro-Israel sends him an important message that he cannot go too far in opposing Israeli interests.
At the same time, there are discernible shades of gray in the congressional attitudes. People want Powell to succeed, and it's important to remember, said Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., that any American sentiment toward Israel should not be read as anti-Arab.
"No one," he said, "is condemning the Arabs or the Palestinians specifically."
There's also this strategic consideration: The United States needs the continuing support of moderate Arab states in its war against terrorism, especially if it plans an invasion of Iraq. It can hardly afford to alienate those states, something congressional leaders are well aware of.
How far the voices of moderation will go in shaping policy remains uncertain. The sympathy for Israel is rooted too deeply and for too many reasons, including the many similarities between Israel's interests and those of the United States.
The most obvious is this country's Jewish population. There are an estimated 5.7 million Jewish people in the United States, and 10 of the 100 U.S. senators and 27 of the 435 House members list their religion as Jewish. Lieberman is an Orthodox Jew who in 2000 became the first of his faith ever to run on a national party's presidential ticket.
Arab Americans have far less representation. Their strongest backers have generally been from the Detroit area, where there is a large Arab-American population. But the same area has a large, active Jewish population, so lawmakers tend to be careful in discussing the Mideast situation.
"It's very important that we deal fairly with both sides," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. "It's just a very tough issue."
Zogby maintained that Congress is blindly pro-Israel because "they're all like DWI, operating under the influence" of powerful Jewish interests.
"How could this [the Netanyahu appearance] have happened? The senators violated their oath of office. I'm dumbfounded," Zogby said.
But to simply say sympathy for Israel is a result of some powerful Jewish interests or sizable population would be a mistake, other analysts said.
"Israel is a democracy that had innocent citizens blown up by terrorists," said James M. Lindsay, senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. "It's not unlike what happened to Americans on Sept. 11. Many Americans see this issue in moral as well as political terms."
That made sense to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who said proportionately, "Israel has suffered greater casualties [from recent terrorist acts] than the U.S."
Lawmakers also echoed the public sentiment reflected in polls, that although support for Israel remains strong, the public wants peace in the region, and it wants the violence to end.
"The Middle East is quickly spinning out of control and is heading toward a raging inferno, which will leave the United States with very few options in this region," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.
Members of Congress indicated that as long as Powell comes up with some plan that appears reasonable, they will probably support it.
"There are no good options for the United States in the Middle East," Hagel said. "Each option carries risk, but the option of not being actively engaged is far higher."
"We cannot lose sight of what should be our ultimate goal," Wellstone said, "Israel and a new Palestinian state living side by side in peace with secure borders."
Copyright 2002, Hartford Courant

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