WASHINGTON — The sudden surge of Israeli-Palestinian violence this week, and President Bush’s decision to criticize Israel for its role, appear to be driving Israel’s allies in Congress and the Jewish community toward a confrontation with the White House that most had sought to avoid until now.
Bush angered pro-Israel groups on Tuesday by criticizing an Israeli helicopter raid on a Hamas leader in Gaza, which injured the militant but left two bystanders dead.
Bush said he was “troubled” by the Israeli attack and concerned that it would make it more difficult for Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to fight terrorism. The president added that he did not believe the attacks served Israel’s security interests.
“I regret the loss of innocent life,” Bush told reporters.
Bush’s remarks prompted a series of angry retorts from Israeli allies. Democrat Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York said Bush should be “concerned about eliminating terrorism” rather than Israeli actions. He said: “I didn’t see much criticism when innocent civilians became unfortunate casualties of our rather strenuous reaction to threats from Iraq, threats that never materialized.”
The Israeli raid, which Jerusalem described as an attack on a “factory of ticking bombs,” followed a Hamas-led attack on an Israeli post in which four soldiers were killed. Hamas responded with a rocket attack on an Israeli town. Israel followed with a raid on a refugee camp that left three people dead.
Hamas responded with a suicide bus bombing in Jerusalem, which left at least 16 people dead and about 80 wounded. Soon after, an Israeli helicopter fired missiles at a vehicle in Gaza City that Israel says was carrying wanted Hamas members and Tito Massaoud, a leader of the group’s military wing. At least seven people were killed, including several bystanders.
Several Jewish organizations issued criticisms of Bush that are more severe than anything heard since he became president. Among them were a group of Orthodox organizations — including the Orthodox Union, the Religious Zionists of America, the Rabbinical Council of America and the National Council of Young Israel — that have consistently supported Bush until now.
The Anti-Defamation League, too, broke with the president, rebuking him in an open letter and criticizing his “road map” to peace for the first time since it was endorsed by Israel last month. Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, told the Forward that the week’s chain of events was “the first example” of the risk, inherent in the road map, of having Washington assume the role of “an arbiter, a judge and a jury on issues that should be in the sovereign judgment of Israel.”
If this is how the process begins, Foxman said, then the Jewish community may be justified in its worries that the road map will cause more harm than good.
In its open letter to the president, ADL said it was “troubled” by Bush’s criticism of Israel’s actions. “Israel, like the United States, has the right to defend itself from terrorism,” the letter said. “Israel cannot stand idly by while its citizens are slaughtered.”
On Capitol Hill, congressional aides were saying this week that support for the road map among lawmakers was showing increasing signs of weakness. “Folks here still want to see performance on the part of the Palestinians,” one staffer said.
In the House, signatures are being gathered on a letter to the president urging him to put greater pressure on the Palestinians to make the road map work. The letter urges the president to insist on full Palestinian compliance with the road map, and calls on the administration to demand that America’s Arab and European allies join Washington in trying to isolate Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority.
The letter, initiated by Ackerman and Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the leaders of the House Middle East subcomittee, is accompanied by a “Dear Colleague” memo to fellow lawmakers, headlined “Reform + Terror = Peace?”
Ackerman and Ros-Lehtinen were joined in their effort by the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, Rep. Tom Lantos of California.
Rep. Shelly Berkley, a Nevada Democrat who sits on the House’s Middle East subcommittee, told the Forward that while she is still “cautiously optimistic” regarding the road map. “I’m not a fool,” she said. “[I know] that we have gone down this path before.”
Several Jewish communal officials, according to the leader of one mainstream Jewish organization, are considering working with Congress to temper what they see as Bush’s zeal to implement the road map — even if it means hurting their own relations with the White House and the Israeli government.
The Israeli attack and the White House’s reaction caught Jewish activists off guard. Privately, some questioned the wisdom of the timing of the failed attempt on the life of the Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi. One pro-Israel activist in Washington called the attack “stupid.” At the same time, several ranking Jewish community leaders said privately that they were outraged by Bush’s reaction.
Bush responded to the Israeli attack with what some observers called his fiercest public scolding of Israel since taking office, issuing condemnations first through his spokesman and then on his own.
“I am determined to keep the process on the road to peace,” Bush said. “And I believe with responsible leadership by all parties, we can bring peace to the region — and I emphasize all parties must behave responsibly to achieve that objective.”
Bush’s decision to reiterate his spokesman’s earlier statements — after an intervening conversation between National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Prime Minister Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass — was described in Washington as evidence that the administration had not accepted Israeli explanations, according to a report in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz .
Administration officials accused Sharon of violating what they said was his commitment to give Abu Mazen time to rebuild his security apparatus so he can effectively fight terrorists and build up support with the Palestinian public. The high-profile assassination attempt undermined Abu Mazen’s efforts to fight terrorism and to obtain a modicum of credibility among his people, administration officials said.
Several Jewish organizations declined to issue statements criticizing the White House’s rebuke of Israel, with officials explaining that their leaders were overseas or that they wanted to avoid a conflict with the White House.
The executive director of the American Jewish Congress, Neil Goldstein, while reserved in his criticisms of the White House, staunchly defended Israel’s right to respond to terrorist attacks.