By JOHN HALL
Media General News Service
April 21, 2006
Where have we heard that before? President Bush's 2002 "axis of evil" speech targeted Iran, Iraq and North Korea. That was the one in which he claimed Iraq was acquiring anthrax, nerve gas and nuclear weapons, which proved a bit exaggerated.
If anything, Bush, speaking only months after the 9/11 attacks, was more cheerful than the Israelis in drawing the security picture.
Although the Tel Aviv bombing, which killed nine, was the work of the Islamic Jihad, the Hamas-led Palestinian administration defended the attack as legitimate and justified. They claimed it was a response to Israeli military "aggression."
The cycle of violence and escalating war of words are drearily familiar in the Middle East.
The new twist is that the ruling Palestinian party is more or less giving its overt blessing to a suicide bombing. And Israel, sadly leaderless and under stress, is now painting itself as the victim of an international conspiracy centered on the Hamas organization that seized power in the latest elections in the Palestinian territory.
Israel's U.N. ambassador Dan Gillerman used almost apocalyptic terms. He warned that the recent statements by all three governments threatening the existence of Israel should be taken at face value, and they amounted to declarations of war against his country.
U.S. officials are trying to discourage Israel from taking any unilateral steps that inevitably would draw American forces into a larger war in this area. Many analysts have been speculating for years that, if provoked, the Israelis would use their own air power to take out suspected nuclear arms production in Iran that could threaten Israel's own survival.
The tactic here is to support the Israelis and reassure them that the Iranian march to build the bomb will not go unchallenged. But it is increasingly hard to make those assurances as American forces keep getting bogged down deeper in Iraq and the options for responding to Iran are limited.
Officials here are trying to keep Israel's focus on diplomacy, with the objective of isolating Hamas economically and politically.
One concern here is the prospect for the financing of a Palestinian terrorist state with the riches of the current global oil boom.
An Arab summit last month pledged to keep Hamas alive despite the calls from Washington and the European Union for no direct funding until it gives up its goal to destroy the Jewish state.
One of the states that pledged aid to Hamas was Qatar, a close ally of the United States. And last week, it announced that it was donating $50 million to the Palestinian Authority despite the American request to withhold it.
The State department was caught flatfooted. It noted that so far only two countries - Iran and Qatar - had offered money to Hamas, only enough to pay salaries of the Palestinian government for part of one month. Still, if tiny Qatar was willing to defy the United States, it is hard to see who in the Persian Gulf would heed the boycott of Hamas.
Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have also promised $80 million to the Palestinians. Delivering on the promise in the wake of the bombing doesn't seem to be a moral dilemma for these states.
In the past, the Gulf States have sometimes been too tight to part with their financial pledges to the Palestinians. But the Gulf is awash in cash at the moment. And friendship with the United States does not appear to hang in the balance. They know they have the upper hand as oil producers.
Organizing international isolation of Iran would be many times as difficult as cutting off the Palestinians. Many economists fear it would create a shortage that would drive up oil prices even higher. That would create pressure to break sanctions quickly, particularly in oil-dependent states like China.
Not many savory options are left to the United States in this situation. With Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, comatose and a new government taking charge, Israel's warning that pressure is rapidly building toward a general war in the area was not very encouraging.
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.