With many Muslim countries already critical of U.S. policy toward the Middle East, Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress Wednesday Arab-Israeli violence has not been helpful to the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism. The Bush administration is facing criticism from lawmakers who see a double standard in how the United States responds to terrorism against Americans while calling for Israel to act with restraint when terror is carried out against Israelis.
Just hours after he issued the administration's third call in as many days for Israeli troops to pull back from the West Bank, Secretary of State Colin Powell found himself forced to respond to accusations from lawmakers, such as Democrat Tom Lantos, over a perceived double standard on the issue of combating terrorism.
"If Israel targets terrorists who are responsible for the murder of large numbers of innocent private citizens, whether it's in a discotheque or in a pizzeria or elsewhere, I think it is the ultimate of hypocrisy to have State Department spokesmen criticize our democratic allies for actions we ourselves engage in," said Mr. Lantos.
His fellow Democrat Gary Ackerman went on to ask: "What would we think if the Israelis said to us or anybody else said to us, as some have, 'We should seek a political solution to this, why don't we sit down at the table with bin Laden or the people he represents and why don't we just work out our difference.' I think the answer to that would truly be laughable and yet that's what we're suggesting to the Israelis."
The debate was set off by Israel's hunt for those responsible for last week's assassination of the country's tourism minister, an act that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says crossed a red line and prompted the Israeli army to make its deepest push into the West Bank in nearly a decade.
Secretary Powell's testimony was supposed to deal largely with the U.S.-led war on Afghanistan. But he ended up answering many questions about U.S. calls for Israel to respond to terrorism against Israelis differently than the United States would. "In the daily response to provocation, rather than things getting better as a result of responses, things are getting worse," said Mr. Powell.
But that answer did not end the questioning. Democrat Tom Lantos replied: "What does the state of Israel do in the face of terrorist attacks? It merely accepts them or does it have the right to use its sovereign self-defense authority to defend itself?"
Secretary Powell responded that Israel certainly has the right of self-defense but that the targeted assassinations of Palestinians are not helping to reduce the violence. "It is a democratic state and it has the right to defend itself in the way that it sees fit and appropriate," he said. "We have felt that targeted assassinations, however much the state of Israel believes they are appropriate and uses their forces to conduct such activities, we believe that those kinds of activities are hurtful to the overall process."
In the end, Secretary Powell called the issue a difficult one while pointing out that Osama bin Laden wants to use Arab-Israeli violence to generate anger against both the United States and Israel. But he said the alleged terrorist mastermind has never really cared a whit, as he put it, about the Palestinian cause, until now.