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U.S. Is Taken Aback by Attacks

June 11, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's rare public rebuke of Israel for launching two attacks on Palestinians in the space of a few hours triggered an uncomfortable confrontation Tuesday over the peace "road map" that came much sooner than Washington had anticipated.

The White House was caught off guard by Israel's attempted assassination of Abdulaziz Rantisi, a senior leader of the extremist group Hamas, then was further unsettled by a second Israeli strike launched around the same time as a Palestinian attack.

"I'm concerned that the attacks make it more difficult for the Palestinian leadership to fight off terrorist attacks. I also don't believe the attacks helped Israeli security," a grim-faced Bush said.

Since leading a Mideast peace summit last week in Aqaba, Jordan, the president had been prepared to lean on the parties if they appeared to waver in their commitment to reaching a final settlement. But Washington had not expected the road map to be in trouble even before the new U.S. coordinator, John Wolf, arrived in the region this week to begin implementing it, according to U.S. officials.

Washington interpreted Tuesday's violence -- which followed a weekend assault on Israeli troops -- as open defiance of an agreement by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to give Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas time to build a new security force so that he could contain Islamic extremists, the sources said.

Bush did not call Sharon on Tuesday, but White House and State Department officials spent the day working the phones in what White House spokesman Ari Fleischer described as a "full-court press" on their Israeli counterparts, urging restraint.

But beyond exhorting both sides, the Bush administration has limited options, unless it takes a radical step such as deploying Americans to keep the peace, said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

"Being upset with the Israelis will not do the work," said Indyk, now director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center. "They have to have an alternative to Israel taking action, and it doesn't exist. What do we do in the meantime?"

The Israeli government told Washington that Sharon had pledged in Aqaba to make concessions and even take risks for peace but that he won't compromise on his nation's security, Israeli envoys said.

"We know Abbas is not ready, not strong enough yet. So during this interim twilight period -- which could be two weeks, two months, who knows how long? -- is Hamas to think it's immune?" said an Israeli envoy, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We know it will do attacks, so we can't let Hamas think that because Abbas is building up his power, Israel will sit back and do nothing."

Bush found the attack on Rantisi troubling, Fleischer said, "particularly as a result of the new environment that has been created in the post-Aqaba era."

While the president "wants to remind all parties about their responsibilities," Fleischer added, "today, he reminds Israel."

The administration was taken aback by the sequence of events Tuesday.

Israel has carried out dozens of so-called targeted killings and has never notified Washington of its plans in advance, U.S. officials said. Neither did it warn the White House before unleashing the helicopter gunship strike on Rantisi in the Gaza Strip, they said.

The attempted assassination followed a joint weekend assault by Hamas and two other militant Palestinian groups at Gaza's Erez crossing that killed four Israeli soldiers.

The timing of the attempt against Rantisi was considered particularly difficult.

Notified shortly after 7 a.m., Bush ordered an initial round of telephone calls by his senior foreign policy team to convey a strong message: The United States understood Israel's need to defend itself, but the timing was not appropriate, according to U.S. and Israeli officials.

Then, as Palestinians fired six rockets into Israel in retaliation, Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships launched a second attack on the area where the rockets were fired, killing three Palestinians and wounding more than 30.

The follow-up raid left the administration scrambling to figure out why the president's messages had not been heeded.

"We don't know whether it was the result of someone saying, 'Ignore those phone calls,' or whether the phone calls didn't get to the right people," an administration official said.

"But we do know enough that we think that something other than what happened should have happened," he added. "We're disappointed."

In a further pointed admonition, Bush urged "responsible" leadership to implement the road map, which calls for a provisional Palestinian state by the end of this year and a final settlement by the end of 2005.

"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," he told reporters.

Fleischer said the president still believes Sharon is committed to pursuing peace efforts.

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