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U.S. Refraining From Criticism Of Gaza Foray

WASHINGTON — With their countries mounting parallel military offensives against terrorist strongholds in Iraq and Gaza, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a high-powered White House meeting Monday.

Moments after the talks, reporters asked Netanyahu if Rice had urged Israel to demonstrate restraint during its operation in Gaza. The Israeli leader lifted his index finger and replied with satisfaction: “Not in one word.”

The meeting appeared to back up the assertion by Israeli and American officials that the White House essentially endorses the current offensive in Gaza. This view appeared to gain credence Tuesday, when America exercised its veto at the United Nations Security Council to defeat a resolution condemning Israel’s actions in Gaza. The measure, which was introduced by Algeria and Pakistan, obtained 11 out of the 15 votes, including key members France, Russia and China. Great Britain, Germany and Romania abstained.

The Israeli foray came in response to the killing of two Israeli children in the southern city of Sderot, in an attack featuring two Qassam rockets fired by Palestinians in Gaza. An estimated 75 Palestinians have been killed during the Israeli military operation, including 31 civilians who took no part in the fighting, according to B’tselem, the left-leaning Israeli human rights watchdog group. Among the dead were 19 children.

The Bush administration’s decision to refrain from criticizing Israel comes just days after both presidential candidates steered clear of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in their first debate. While the White House seems eager to avoid any confrontation with Israel in advance of the presidential election, genuine strategic concerns also help account for Washington’s muted response to the Israeli operation in Gaza, American and Israeli sources said.

According to this view, the Bush administration has concluded that America has a significant interest in ensuring that an Israeli pullout from Gaza is not perceived in the Arab world as a victory for terrorist groups. The fear is that such a perception would embolden the forces targeting American soldiers in Iraq.

The Forward has learned that, in both military and political circles, Israeli and American officials recently have discussed the issue and concluded that the best course is for Israel to conduct punishing military operations against terrorists and their infrastructure as it withdraws from Gaza.

But America’s strongest international ally in Iraq, Great Britain, voiced serious objections to the Israeli approach. In addition, last week, during an address to his party, British Prime Minister Tony Blair promised that after the American presidential election he would make it a “personal priority” to advance the peace process — a pledge generally understood to mean an increased push for American pressure on Israel.

No such pressure appeared to be forthcoming from Rice in her meeting with Netanyahu on Monday. It came on the sixth day of Israel’s large-scale incursion into Gaza, and the day after the conclusion of a major American offensive that resulted in Samarra becoming the first city within the so-called Iraqi Sunni Triangle to be reoccupied by American forces.

Netanyahu, a former Israeli prime minister and Sharon’s chief rival within the Likud Party, said he told Rice that Israel expects the United States to help cover the cost of improving the living conditions of Palestinians in the West Bank, which have deteriorated because of Israel’s security fence and the network of access roads to Jewish settlements. The cost: “Hundreds of millions of dollars,” Netanyahu said, offering what he described as a conservative estimate.

Netanyahu also told Rice that in the future, Israel intends to ask for financial assistance to cover the cost of its withdrawal from Gaza.

One Israeli diplomat told the Forward that with American forces launching a similar offensive in Iraq and Israeli citizens facing the threat of cross-border attacks, the White House is in no position to criticize Jerusalem over its increased efforts to combat terrorism in Gaza.

But, several observers argued, American action in Iraq is more forward-looking, aimed at transferring internal security authorities to an Iraqi force and at holding elections to legitimize what hopefully would be a pragmatic leadership. Israel is not only failing to facilitate the creation of effective Palestinian security and political institutions, but it also is actively working to suppress them, critics said.

“Sharon has abandoned a political remedy in Gaza,” said Timothy Lomperis, chairman of the political science department at Saint Louis University and a former Army intelligence officer who specializes in insurgencies.

This line of criticism has been trumpeted by America’s international partners in promoting the so-called road map peace plan, and even for a time by the White House, after Sharon first introduced his plan earlier this year for unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza. But eventually the Americans accepted Sharon’s argument that his disengagement plan was the direct outcome of the failure for a true diplomatic partner to emerge from the Palestinian side.

This week, Sharon’s defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, said he “believes” that after Israel withdraws, a “responsible leadership” would evolve in Gaza.

Hopes and beliefs are not enough, Lomperis countered. Absent a political plan and a partner on the other side, he said, “the only thing [the Israelis] have got are tanks and attack-helicopters, which will have to go [into Gaza] again and again and again, to the increasing opprobrium of world opinion.”

According to press reports, Israel sought help from Egyptian mediators to broker a deal with Palestinian militants to halt the launching of Kassam rockets into Israel in return for a gradual pullback of Israeli forces from the northern Gaza. But the Egyptians are negotiating with the Palestinian Authority, while the Kassam rockets — most of them, at least — are being launched by Hamas militants.

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