As world leaders scrambled this month to make sense of a seeming upsurge in deadly terrorist attacks around the globe, Israeli policymakers were struggling over how best to portray their nation’s place in the mayhem.
In response to the attacks, some Israeli officials were suggesting that Palestinian strikes against Israel were part of the worldwide wave of Islamist terrorism. At the same time, however, other Israeli officials were saying that Palestinian terrorists were not connected to Al Qaeda, the Islamist group blamed for the much of the terrorism elsewhere.
Jerusalem also seemed unsettled over the question of whether to speak out in response to recent global developments.
Following the London subway bombings of July 7, in which 52 people were killed, Israeli diplomats were ordered to maintain a low profile and avoid trumpeting Israel’s role as a target and victim of terrorists. At least 250 people have been killed since then in terrorist bombings in Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Chechnya and Iraq.
The initial Israeli silence, a sharp departure from past practice, was intended to avoid any appearance of exploiting others’ grief, and at the same time to forestall accusations that Israeli policy was fueling the terrorist wave.
This week, however, Israel’s Foreign Ministry entered into a heated dispute with the Vatican following a sermon by Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday. In the sermon, the pope deplored the “death, destruction and suffering” caused recently by Islamist terrorists in “Egypt, Turkey, Iraq and Britain,” neglecting to mention a July 12 bombing in Israel. Israel summoned the Vatican ambassador and told him the omission was a “moral stain” that “cries out to the heavens.”
The next day, two of Israel’s top counter-terrorism officials declared in separate statements that Al Qaeda was not actively targeting Israel at present.
While Israeli opinions are divided on whether Al Qaeda has a long-term interest in striking Israel, it is not believed to be linked to Israel’s main Islamic terrorist foes, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Hamas, in fact, criticized Al Qaeda this week for its attacks in Egypt and elsewhere.
The mixed Israeli message appears in part to reflect uncertainty over how to position Israel in an unfriendly diplomatic environment. “With the tendency to denigrate Israel, we do not want to be embroiled in the discussion,” a senior Israeli official in Jerusalem told the Forward this week. “We believe that other people should push the argument that Israel is a central actor in the fight against terror, but it should not be us.”
At the same time, Israel’s wavering echoes a broader uncertainty among Western analysts about the relationship between Al Qaeda’s campaign of global jihad and local campaigns by Muslim terrorists in Chechnya, Turkey and elsewhere that appear to be largely nationalist in nature.
After the September 11 attacks, Israeli officials insisted that the United States and Israel were fighting the same radical Islamic terrorist scourge. At the same time, Al Qaeda and its affiliates made increasing reference in their public declarations to Israel and Jews, which had not featured prominently in the group’s agenda.
Terrorists bombed a synagogue in Tunisia in April 2002, an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya in November 2002, several Jewish targets in Morocco in May 2003 and two synagogues in Turkey in November 2003. Prime Minister Sharon vowed to chase Al Qaeda around the world.
With the recent round of Al Qaeda-linked attacks, however, Israel’s significance appears to have receded.
When Islamic terrorists struck in Egypt last year they targeted a resort frequented by Israelis. But this month’s bombings were carried out farther south, in Sharm el-Sheikh, where Europeans, rather than Israelis, tend to vacation. In London, the targets selected appeared to have no explicit Jewish or Israeli connection.
Yehudit Barsky, a terrorism expert at the American Jewish Committee, said that Al Qaeda is primarily targeting the United States rather than Israel. As a result, the network has been hitting American allies, including Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Spain, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt to weaken their pro-American stance.
The recent international attacks have sparked debate about the exact extent of Al Qaeda’s threat to Israel. Last week, it was reported that one of the suspected London suicide bombers, Mohamad Sidique Khan, traveled to Israel a few months before the April 2003 bombing of a Tel Aviv bar by two British Muslims — a rare known instance in which foreign operatives conducted an operation in Israel. In October 2004, Israel’s then-military chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, told a Knesset committee that the army recently had foiled an Al Qaeda attempt to establish a stronghold in the Palestinian territories.
But on Monday, Danny Arditi, Sharon’s top counter-terrorism adviser, told Israel’s Army Radio: “We have no information, for now, on intended Al Qaeda operations against Israel… My assessment is that we are slowly coming into their sights… They are getting closer, but they are not yet close.”
Still, Israeli officials told the Forward, Jerusalem’s official position is that Islamic fundamentalist resentment of the West is at the root of terrorism perpetrated against Israel and around the globe:
“If Israel will disappear tomorrow, there will not be less terrorism,” said Gideon Meir, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s deputy director-general for public affairs. “Terrorism is there because Islamist fundamentalist groups want to confront everything America and Britain and Israel represent.”
With Israel on the periphery of the recent attacks, experts say Israel has been wise to stay out of the debate raging in Europe and the Muslim world about the reasons for the recent attacks. “Nobody likes to be told, ‘I told you so,’” said the AJCommittee’s Barsky.
But Israeli officials told the Forward that they felt obliged to respond after the pope prayed July 24 for an end to terrorism without mentioning the July 12 bombing in Netanya that killed five people. Israel’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Vatican ambassador to Israel, Pietro Sambi, to register a protest.
“The pope’s omission of this incident cries out to the heavens,” said an Israeli Foreign Ministry official, Nimrod Barkan, in a statement he read to Sambi, according to published reports. “Aside from the moral stain implied therein, this cannot but be interpreted as a granting of legitimacy to the carrying out terrorist attacks against Jews.”
Israeli sources say the Vatican has repeatedly refrained from acknowledging terrorist attacks against Israel, and the pope’s recent words only brought the issue to a head.
Vatican officials told Reuters they were surprised by Israel’s protest, which they said twisted the pope’s meaning. They noted that the Vatican has repeatedly condemned terrorism “from wherever it comes and against whomever it is aimed,” Reuters reported.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, addressing Parliament after the July 7 bombings, also omitted Israel from a list of countries hit by terrorism. But this week Blair listed “Palestine,” alongside Iraq, Egypt and Turkey, as one of the places where no justification existed for suicide bombings.
In another positive development for Israeli officials, the recent bombings seemed to have energized ongoing discussions at the United Nations to reach an agreement on a definition of terrorism that would pave the way for the adoption of a comprehensive international treaty on terrorism. A committee working on the issue has been stymied for nearly a decade by a dispute over whether Palestinian terrorism and Israeli actions should be included. Earlier this year, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed a general definition branding any intentional maiming or killing of civilians as terrorism, regardless of the cause and urged the member states to find a compromise during this year’s General Assembly in September. In the last round of talks this spring, Arab delegates resisted Annan’s proposal as contrary to the right of Palestinians to fight foreign occupation.
But on Monday, Amr Moussa, the head of the 22-nation League of Arab States and a former Egyptian foreign minister, endorsed Annan’s definition.