america's stunning lack of judgment,

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    Aug. 13, 2003
    America's stunning lack of judgment,
    By Michael Freund

    Standing before the Washington press corps on Monday, US State Department Spokesman Philip Reeker set a new departmental record for moral cowardice. Speaking just 24 hours after Hizbullah terrorists killed an Israeli teenager by firing indiscriminately across the Lebanese border, Reeker could not bring himself to explicitly condemn this wanton act of murder.

    Instead, in remarks that dare I say it reeked of moral relativism, Reeker stressed it was incumbent upon all parties, Israel included, not to inflame tensions in the region.

    "We have been in contact with the Israelis," he said, "and with the other parties, with Lebanon and Syria, urging them to exercise maximum restraint in order to avoid further escalation."

    Huh? Apparently, even some of the reporters present could not quite understand the logic of putting Hizbullah child-killers and their Syrian paymasters in the same category as Israeli soldiers defending their country.

    According to the official transcript of the press briefing, one of the journalists then asked Reeker, "Phil, the call for maximum restraint last week, and I presume again today, applied solely to Lebanon and Syria, correct? There was no effort to call on Israel to exercise any kind of restraint in retaliating for these attacks?"

    Reeker's reply: The call for restraint applied to "all countries."

    Perhaps still finding it somewhat hard to digest, another questioner enquired, "Okay, so just to make sure. 'The parties' includes Israel, as well?" Reeker's response: "Right. We have been in touch with everybody there."

    Presumably the reason behind the State Department's current bout of displeasure with Israel is that the Jewish state dared to retaliate, however mildly, for this latest Hizbullah outrage.

    The fact that Israel's response was limited to bombing the specific cannon used by the terrorists in their assault and did not include a wider array of targets, does not appear to count for much with either Reeker or his boss, Secretary of State Colin Powell. The murder of a Jewish child and the destruction of the cannon that killed him, are apparently viewed with equal alarm in the halls of Foggy Bottom.

    Equally astonishing, though, was Reeker's announcement that in the wake of the Hizbullah attack Powell himself had called Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to convey the need for "restraint." And yet when it came to getting a similar message across to the Syrians and the Lebanese, the secretary of state did not bother to lift the receiver and dial his counterparts.

    Instead, as Reeker put it, the message was conveyed to them "through our standard diplomatic channels" clearly implying that in Israel's case nonstandard channels had to be used, i.e. a phone call from Powell.

    Essentially, the State Department was making it clear that the party most in need of restraint was you guessed it Israel.

    To be fair, Reeker did call in his remarks for Syria and Lebanon to end their support for Hizbullah, and he did label the group a "terrorist organization." But his failure to distinguish between the bad guys and the good guys, and his grouping of Israel in the same league with Syria's thuggish regime, reveals a stunning lack of judgment. In the post-September 11 world it also demonstrates a remarkable level of hypocrisy.

    There is no longer any excuse for waffling on the issue of terror, and certainly not when it comes from the chief spokesman of the State Department.

    As Winston Churchill once told the House of Commons, "I decline utterly to be impartial between the fire brigade and the fire." In this case the US should bear in mind the difference between the arsonists (Syria and Lebanon) and the fireman (Israel).

    Instead of offering up the standard diplomatic blather about "all parties" showing restraint, here's what Reeker could have said:

    "The United States condemns Hizbullah's senseless murder of an Israeli youth and demands that the Syrian and Lebanese governments act immediately to disarm and disband this terrorist group.

    "In addition, the United States recognizes Israel's fundamental right to defend itself, its citizens, and its territory, which is a central principle underlying the global war on terror."

    Reeker's failure to draw a moral line in the sand, however, is far more than just a question of articulating American policy. It is also a matter of life and death. By muddying the waters, by blurring the line between Hizbullah's assault and Israel's response, the State Department is essentially delegitimizing Israel's efforts to protect itself, making it all the more difficult for Israeli decision-makers to pursue such a course.

    That is precisely what the terrorists are hoping for because it weakens Israel's ability and will to strike back at them, allowing them to continue to kill innocent civilians with impunity.

    Taken together with Powell's recent suggestion that Israel might face sanctions over the building of a fence to keep out Palestinian terrorists, it is hard to escape the feeling that there is a sinister pattern at work here, one in which the State Department would deny Israel the right to act for its own self-preservation.

    If defensive measures, such as building a fence, and offensive measures, such as taking out terrorist positions, are not legitimate, how exactly do they expect Israel to protect itself? Or, to put it even more bluntly: By decrying Israel's attempts to defend itself, the State Department is figuratively hanging up a sign at the entrance to the Middle East that reads, "Jews are fair game."

    If that isn't an act of moral cowardice, what is?

    The writer served as deputy director of Communications & Policy Planning in the Prime Minister's Office.
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