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Diplomatic fallout from a bomb

Kenya attack complicates US role in Mideast as it pushes US and Israel closer together in world views on terror.

The terrorist bombing that killed Israelis and Kenyans at an Israeli-owned seaside resort in Kenya last week is complicating American diplomatic efforts in the Middle East.

As has happened repeatedly since Sept. 11, 2001, violence aimed at Israelis seems to be inexorably pushing the American and Israeli views of the world closer together - potentially posing problems for America's broader interests in the region.

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The latest attacks will likely embolden Israeli efforts to get the US to adopt its view that there is no difference between America's war on terrorism and its own battle against Palestinian militants.

At the same time, the Kenya bombing, because it took place outside Israel and because Al Qaeda may have been involved, makes it harder for the US to treat the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as something different from the US terror war.

The US, of course, has an interest in seeing that differences between the two aren't fully erased. First, it wants to continue to play the role of honest broker in the Middle East peace process. But it also doesn't want to alienate the Arab world at a time when it is trying to build support for a possible war with Iraq.

The prevailing Arab view, as well as that of many other nations, has always been that the Palestinian struggle for a homeland makes their conflict different than from the radicalism of Al Qaeda.

Yet this bombing, which could be Al Qaeda's first on an Israeli target, follows persistent Osama bin Laden rhetoric equating his Islamic extremism with the Palestinian cause - making the task of keeping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict outside the global terrorism box more difficult. And that, in turn, complicates America's relations with the Islamic world.

This week US officials are fanning out through the region, from Turkey to the Persian Gulf, enlisting cooperation and assistance for an eventual American-led war with Iraq. And next week, the Bush administration is set to host in Washington a ministerial meeting of the so-called "quartet" countries - the US, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations - to work towards a "road map" for achieving an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

State Department officials say the US will be "accentuating" this latest American effort in the peace process as it seeks cooperation against Iraq. But they also recognize the impact that violence against Israelis is having.

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Continuing US attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the upcoming quartet meeting, "is something we're going to accentuate" as US officials visit countries in the region over coming days, a State Department official says. "It's a theme we're going to be employing" beyond those meetings, he adds, as part of a US effort to keep the peace process on its own track.

But the official also acknowledges that the US effort is complicated by indications, including the Kenya bombing, that others besides Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are pressing the conflict into the broader terrorism context.

"If we really start to see a refocusing of Al Qaeda on Israel or any clear evidence of Palestinian ties to Al Qaeda, it will certainly revive the questions we've faced [since 9/11] of whether our emphasis should be more on counterterrorism than on policy for promoting" settlement of the conflict, he says.

A harder US focus on the conflict as a front in the war on terrorism is what Mr. Sharon has been pushing for in the many meetings he has held with President Bush.

But US officials are also wary that such a shift is probably exactly what Mr. Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization want, since it would help drive a wedge between the US and Arab and Islamic countries.

In his most recent taped message, which experts agree was almost certainly bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader speaks more frequently than previously of Israel and Palestine - and of America's role in the conflict.

"Our 'terrorism' is against America ... to stop it from committing oppression, from supporting Israel who is killing our children," he says. "Our way of defending and waging war is no different from that of our Palestinian brothers."

Such rhetoric is designed to blacken America's image, but also to serve as a goad to push the US towards actions that would worsen its standing in the Arab and Islamic worlds, experts say.

Bin Laden is "trying to build support for uprooting the 'impious oppressors' from throughout the region, so he's adding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iraq, and Kashmir to his campaign, and hoping the US will respond in ways that worsen its lot in the Muslim world," says Richard Murphy, a former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. "Losing all distinction between the war on terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would fall right into his game plan."

Despite intensifying pressure from Congress and from the administration's allies in the Christian Right for adopting the Israeli view of terror, small signs suggest that the Bush administration is resisting the squeeze - at least for now.

With its focus on Iraq and winning Arab support for an eventual war, the White House has so far resisted pronouncements equating the recent attacks on Israelis with the war on terror. At the same time, the US has successfully pressured Israel to accept staying out of any war with Iraq except in extreme circumstances.

But the US is also clearly taking Israeli concerns into account. For one thing, the administration is now saying the Dec. 20 quartet meeting is likely to result in "progress towards a roadmap" for a Palestinian statehood and not the full roadmap itself. "There may be a need for moving a little less aggressively than we would have otherwise because of the Israeli electoral calendar," the State Department official says.

The US approach appears to have won support from Israel. Prime Minister Sharon - strengthened by his victory last week in a Likud Party primary to stand for reelection - also wants to help the Bush administration in its preparations for war with Iraq.

But others aren't sure the balancing of diverse interests will convince others - especially America's Arab partners. "We're trying to build this perception that we haven't completely forgotten the peace process, that our efforts are still alive," says Mr. Murphy, now with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "But that's not how things are viewed in the region."


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