Pressure Mounts to Get Israeli-Palestinian Issue 'Off the Table'

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - In the wake of last week's terrorist onslaught on the U.S., Israel is willing to do all it can to enable the U.S. to build an international coalition to fight terror, but it cannot sacrifice its own security in the process, an advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Friday.

During the last week, there have been suggestions in various U.S. media that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a stumbling block to President Bush's attempts to build an anti-terror coalition.

On Friday, a senior unnamed Israeli diplomat in the U.S. was quoted in various media reports here as having sent a cable to Jerusalem in which he warned of "tremendous" diplomatic damage if Israel is perceived as being an obstacle to that coalition building process.

Analysts say that such fears are behind the push to accommodate Washington's desire that Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat meet as soon as possible to discuss a ceasefire, despite the continuation of violence and terrorism.

Nevertheless, Sharon's foreign policy advisor Zalman Shoval said that there has been no pressure on Israel from Washington to hold the Peres-Arafat meeting.

"In this particular situation with the set up a coalition on the pattern of the Gulf War to include Arab and Muslim countries, an effort [is being made] to get the Israeli-Palestinian issue off the table," Shoval said in a telephone interview.

"The U.S. is also under some pressure by moderate Arab States, who have to confront their own public opinion... [to] cool off the fierceness of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict," he said.

Bush, who is trying to enlist Muslim and Arab states in the fight against global terrorism, is attempting to build a coalition similar to the one his father, former President George Bush, hammered together in 1990-91 to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

But given the current climate of anti-Israel sentiments and the year-old Palestinian uprising against Israel, most Arab and Muslim nations would find it hard to join the U.S., unless there is visible movement toward a resolution on that front.

Washington has come under fierce criticism in the Arab world for its perceived support of Israel in the current crisis.

Israel has declared its willingness to pull back its troops if the Palestinians follow through with the ceasefire, said Shoval, a two-time former ambassador to the U.S. But it would be a "great mistake" to think that while fighting global terrorism "one can avert one's eyes from local terrorism."

"Israel [will] make every effort to [help] in setting up the coalition but there is a limit beyond [which Israel cannot go]," he added.

Sharon sent word to Arafat several days ago telling him that if the Palestinian leader would keep things quiet for 48 hours, Sharon would allow the meeting with his foreign minister to take place. Arafat declared a ceasefire, but the relative calm lasted for only about 20 hours.

There have been numerous mortar, bomb and shooting attacks over the last two days, including one in which a young Israeli mother was killed.

The government debated Israel's response to the continued terrorism Thursday night. The security establishment estimated that Arafat's ceasefire declaration was aimed at currying favor with the U.S. and not toward calming the situation. No decisions were made about the meeting.

Nevertheless, according to media reports on Friday, Peres and Arafat are likely to meet, possibly on Saturday evening.

Shoval said the meeting, if it takes place, will be "symbolic" in nature to indicate that there is a reduction in the violence and to show that there is a hope of settling the conflict.

Because this U.S. administration has no illusions that the time is ripe for a permanent settlement between Israel and the PA, Shoval said, he does not believe Washington will pressure Israel to give in to Palestinian demands.

Nor will last week's suicide terror attacks against the World Trade Center Towers and Pentagon and attempts to build an anti-terror coalition precipitate a change in U.S. policy towards Israel, he said.

"[There is] absolutely no shift in U.S. policy towards Israel. [The] relationships are as strong as ever," he added.