U.S. Should Tell Israel It's on the Wrong Road

James Klurfeld

October 9, 2003

Just as trying to be an honest broker in the Middle East does not mean giving equivalence to every act committed by Israel and the Palestinians, being a friend to Israel does not mean that the United States should condone everything and anything Israel does. If you see a friend going down a dangerous road, you have an obligation to warn the friend.

I've criticized the media when they equated Israel's reaction to terrorism with the acts of terrorists themselves. There is no equivalence between terrorism and self-defense. The tendency to give equal condemnation to both is not only factually inaccurate but also morally wrong.

But when Israel goes down a path that is fraught with negative consequences - both for it and for the United States - Washington has an obligation to say so. Israel's decision to send a warning shot across Syria's bow this week is such an example. Attacking Syria is a step that Israel has not taken in at least 20 years and represents a step down a slippery slope that does not appear justified by recent events.

Does Syria provide a safe haven for leaders of terrorist groups such as Islamic Jihad? Obviously. Would both the Israel and the United States be better off if it stopped that support? Yes. But the most recent atrocity committed against Israel, the bombing in Haifa that killed 19, was staged and organized from within the West Bank not Syria, according to almost all reports. There is a Curly, Moe and Larry quality to the Israeli reaction - if the guy on the left hits you, hit the guy on the right. That is disturbing.

But my concern is much more with the Bush administration for giving Israel a green light for this action and, by implication, further actions. Israel, after all, is being asked to absorb an intolerable level of violence. The attack on Syria borders on the reckless. It opens the possibility of an escalation of hostilities that could lead to large-scale bloodshed in the region and is almost certainly not in the United States' interest given the task it faces in Iraq.

Throughout his career, somebody has always had to put a check on Ariel Sharon, the current Israeli prime minister. He is a blunt instrument whose brilliant military leadership was too often tainted by excess and poor judgment. The decision to invade Lebanon was a disaster for Israel. If it weren't for the strong hand of Moshe Dayan, Sharon might have gone into Cairo at the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Sharon also failed to anticipate what would happen when he left Lebanese Christian militia in charge of Palestinian camps after the initial invasion of Lebanon. An official Israeli inquiry in 1983 placed the blame on him for the 1982 massacre at the camps.

But the Bush administration seems to be backing Sharon on anything he does. A measure of how radical a departure this administration's foreign policy is that it has abandoned any pretense of being a fair broker in the region and has consistently sided with Israel. The same neo-conservative group of officials that brought us the war in Iraq seems to be behind the Israel-is-always-right policy of the administration. The president's predilection to see things through a prism of black and white, right and wrong, is also a major factor.

There is certainly nothing wrong with moral clarity, but unfortunately the Middle East is complex, and oversimplification could lead to unwanted consequences for years to come. The people in charge of President George W. Bush's Mideast policy buy into the Israeli right-wing contention that only unrelenting military pressure will bring the Arabs to their senses. This is simplistic and potentially disastrous and does nothing to address the dilemma that long- term occupation of Arabs is not in Israel's interest.

Both nations would be better served if Israel's friends speak out when it fears Israel is making a serious mistake. Even going into a U.S. presidential election year.

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.

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