WASHINGTON — The Bush administration appears to have dropped any objections to Israeli efforts to topple the Palestinian Authority’s democratically elected Hamas government.
Israel’s security Cabinet on Wednesday authorized the Israeli military to broaden its actions in Gaza and further target Hamas, the terrorist organization that won January’s Palestinian elections and has claimed responsibility for the abduction of Israeli army Corporal Gilad Shalit.
Since Israel started moving forces into Gaza in response to Shalit’s abduction last week, the Bush administration has urged Jerusalem to spare civilians and to provide for their humanitarian needs. Administration officials have also insisted that no harm come to P.A. President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, who they view as a dependable alternative to Hamas.
But in sharp contrast to previous communications, the White House did not advise Olmert’s government against taking steps that would lead to the fall of the Hamas government. American officials did not attempt to intervene when Israel carried out mass arrests of Palestinian elected officials affiliated with Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel or to abandon terrorism. And they also did not appear to object to Israel’s bombing of the Gaza offices of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and the P.A. Interior Ministry.
Israeli military analysts say that the moves were the first step in an Israeli plan to induce the collapse of the Palestinian government. Among those arrested were eight members of Hamas’ 23-member Cabinet and 20 of the 72 Hamas members of the 132-seat parliament.
Sources close to the administration said that policymakers in the White House and the State Department, who in the past advised Israel against toppling the government in the territories for fear that the collapse of the P.A. would bring about chaos, have now concluded that there is no real value in keeping Hamas in power. Hamas is not making any significant effort to moderate and act pragmatically, administration officials recently told Washington insiders. The Hamas government’s support of continued terrorism against Israel — whether it is the launching of home-made rockets from Gaza, the kidnapping of Israelis or suicide attacks against Israel — is viewed by the administration as intolerable and therefore as justification for decisive Israeli action, sources said.
“In the war against terror, in 9/11 there was a line drawn. As far as this administration is concerned, you get our support if you’re on the right side of the line, and you don’t if you’re on the wrong side,” said Aaron Miller, a former senior State Department negotiator on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. That approach was applied to former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat when the administration became convinced of his support of terrorism, and it is now being applied to the Hamas government, said Miller, currently a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.
In addition, administration officials said that they understand the domestic Israeli pressure on Olmert to act decisively. The fear, sources told the Forward, is that American efforts to restrict Israrel’s reaction to Hamas-sponsored terrorism could hasten the fall of Olmert’s government and lead to the demise of his plans for an Israeli withdraw from large parts of the West Bank.
The administration is deeply concerned that developments in Gaza — whether a continued standoff or a massive Israeli military campaign — could lead to a humanitarian crisis. Earlier this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called her Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, to urge her to take action to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Israeli and American sources said. The next day, Israel sent truckloads of food — including flour, corn, oil, meat, fruit and milk— as well as fuel and natural gas into Gaza. A shipment of medicines was delayed because it was not deemed urgent by the Red Cross, according to a statement by the Israeli military spokesman. Israel keeps contact with representatives of international organizations to assess the vital needs of Gaza’s civilian population.
The Israeli military’s efforts to avoid injury to Gaza’s civilian population has helped Jerusalem secure relatively sympathetic coverage for Israel in the American press. Unlike the European media, America’s major news organizations have not given daily front page coverage to the drama in Gaza since the abduction of the Israeli corporal, even as Israel moved tanks and infantry forces into Gaza, bombed military, political and infrastructure targets, and left more than 100,000 Palestinians without electricity.
Overall the coverage in the United States was positive, said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a public relations expert who heads The Israel Project, an organization devoted to improving Israel’s image in the media. Laszlo Mizrahi specifically cited editorials in the Washington Post and The New York Times, which squarely held Hamas responsible for the current escalation.
Advocates for Israel in Washington were gratified. Only two weeks ago, one of them said with deep concern that as a result of several unintended Israeli killings of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, the big public relations boost that Israel enjoyed when it withdrew from Gaza last year would be obliterated. That has not happened.
“What we found is that almost every story [in the American media] points out the most important fact, which is that Israel left all of Gaza,” Laszlo Mizrahi said. “It’s important to refresh people’s memory; our polls show that 94% of America’s opinion elite know that Israel left Gaza and by a ten-to-one margin they feel better about Israel as a result,” she said.
David Segal, the chief spokesman for Israel’s embassy in Washington, agreed.
“In general, the U.S. press has been understanding and supportive of Israel’s objective of rescuing Gilad Shalit and to make sure that this kind of outrage never happens again,” he said.
Still, according to Israeli officials, pro-Israel activist and Middle East experts in Washington, support for Israel in the administration and the American public may erode as the conflict between Israel and Hamas escalates.
The administration may object to Israeli moves that could have regional impact, such as an attack on Syrian territory, Miller said.
Israel contends that Hamas leaders in Damascus are responsible for the June 25 cross-border attack in which Shalit was kidnapped. “If an Israeli action threatens to tip the situation to the point where it escalates mutually, and it impacts negatively on some of the things that the administration does care about in the region, then you’d see a much more interested administration and a much more serious reaction,” Miller said.
The American envoy to the United Nations, John Bolton, called on Syrian authorities to arrest Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, who is based in Damascus. Bolton dismissed comparisons between the kidnapping and Israel’s response.
“There is no moral equivalency to, on the one hand, deliberate attacking of civilians, taking lives, taking hostages versus the inadvertent and highly unfortunate civilian deaths that occur when a country exercises its right to self-defense,” he said June 30, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Those are not the same act, they are not motivated for the same reasons, they do not carry the same moral weight.”