Some say potato

Posted: Oct 17, 2001 12:00 AM
The cross-rhetoric between Israel and the United States -- more specifically, between Prime Minister Sharon and Secretary of State Colin Powell -- reminds us that careful definitions are especially important in tense days.

The generic name for what is going on, involving the United States, the al-Qaeda, Israel and Palestine, is war. We have not declared a formal war against the government of Afghanistan, but we are proceeding against it by our own criteria, of what we want to do and what we elect not to do. Israel is not de jure or de facto at war with "Palestine," but casualties on both sides of the border think of it as war when bombs go off and kill civilians and, indeed, military.

The diplomatic exchange the first week of October was set off by Gen. Sharon, who detected something going on in our Sept. 11 crusade that aroused his suspicions. He warned the United States against "appeas(ing) the Arabs at our expense. We won't accept it." He reminded us that the Western European powers had sought to appease Hitler in 1938 when Neville Chamberlain ceded the Sudetenland, "sacrific(ing) Czechoslovakia" at the Munich Conference.

That charge evidently roused George W. Bush as he had never been aroused in his days as president. Instructions went out to State Department spokesman Richard Boucher to call Sharon by phone and tell him that g-dd-mnit, the United States was not engaged in pursuing appeasement on the Chamberlain model. He informed Sharon that his remarks were "unacceptable." This is the 200-proof diplomatic rebuke, and Sharon backed off, with words to the effect that in likening the U.S. to Chamberlain, he had not intended to liken the U.S. to Chamberlain.

What Sharon fears is that a concordat with the Islamic world could entail a hunk of Israel thrown into the compromise pot. That the United States would do this is glaringly unlikely, but at another level, the U.S. is involved with Afghanistan in activity not unlike what Israel is involved in, in the West Bank. It is the practice of what some call assassination, others targeted killings.

The difference between the two terms triggered a vigorous exchange in Great Britain a month ago. What is the correct term to designate what the Israelis have been doing -- reaching out to the West Bank for figures it judges guilty of terrorism or terrorism planning, and killing them?

The term "assassination" is displeasing, and friends of Israel in England objected to its use by the BBC. The encounter came when a correspondent of the Independent newspaper charged that the BBC had truckled to Israeli criticism, altering the use of the word "assassination" to "targeted killings." The world affairs editor of the BBC, John Simpson, wrote angrily in the Sunday Telegraph that the BBC is unharried by Israel protests, and unharriable.

The BBC's spokesman was loftily proclaiming the independence of the BBC. It is formally correct that the BBC is independent, but not correct that neutral British media are unconcerned with political correctness -- Reuters, after the event, declined to refer to the Sept. 11 killers as "terrorists." Mr. Simpson protested that the term assassination "clearly connotes the deliberate murder of a prominent figure, particularly a politician." Palestinian activists killed by the Israelis aren't assassinated, he was saying; they are targeted killings, pedestrian military activity.

Whatever, the State Department is opposed to the practice, and Israel answers: But what is it that the United States is up to in Afghanistan? Mr. Bush has said that he wants Osama bin Laden dead or alive. If he is killed by an American bomb or friendly sniper, there will be joy in the land of justice; but we will still have assassinated him, and -- one hopes -- many scores of fellow terrorists while at it.

On this, Sharon has a point. But he needs also to recognize that the United States legitimately invokes two perspectives. One fastens on our reaction to a dazzlingly informed, fanatically pursued, munificently financed, internationally coddled unconventional strike against the United States, presenting us with asymmetrical challenges. We are hardly engaged in searching out a World Trade Center in Kabul and removing it. Israel's continuing struggle with the West Bank is similar in the sense to the genocidal animus of the Palestinians, but different in that the U.S. and others have acknowledged a pressing need, in the language of State Department spokesman Boucher, "to take steps to quell the upsurge of violence."

Sharon can take the position that targeted killings are essential elements of self-protection, but he'd have to acknowledge that if the desire on both sides is to encourage and sustain a ceasefire, catalyzing renewed diplomatic negotiations, targeted killings -- or assassinations -- don't help. They are understandably deplored by a State Department anxious to cultivate the peace in that part of the world, never mind that, nearby, it is seeking to kill its own targeted enemies.

Gen. Sharon should mind his tongue, though he is unquestionably entitled to mind his own defenses.