Dont blame Israel for embassy hits, area scholar says

"Israel's security is not to be bargained away to a bunch of lunatic fanatics who gain their leverage killing innocent people," said Sofaer, now a scholar in foreign policy and national security affairs at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

That message is important, Sofaer said this week, given a perception of America's bias toward Israel in the Middle East conflict. The Clinton administration must be prepared to answer those charges firmly and unequivocally, he added. "Nothing is one-sided about American support for Israel. It's got nothing to do with sides. It's a complete commitment to Israel's security."

Meanwhile, U.S. officials believe Israelis and Palestinians have made significant progress in the last several days toward an Israeli withdrawal from 13 percent of the West Bank. If U.S. hits on terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan helped spur movement in the peace process, "there's nothing wrong with that," said Sofaer, who was the lead U.S. negotiator in the 1986 to 1989 Taba talks between Israel and Egypt.

Referring to his appearance last week on a KQED radio show on the bombings, Sofaer said he was surprised by the number of callers who believe Americans are terrorist targets because of this country's relationship with Israel.

"The whole thing was an eye opener to me," he said. "I heard more than I could bear."

Though Israel is the only Middle Eastern state to have publicly hailed the U.S. missile attacks on alleged terrorist bases, Sofaer asserts that other Mideast countries secretly supported the actions.

For now, however, those moderate Arab countries consider a public show of support risky. Osama bin Laden's terror network is believed to reach into dozens of countries and Arab leaders may not want to upset his supporters.

In addition, bin Laden has publicly reinforced a perception of America as weak in foreign-policy missions, citing the example of U.S. troops exiting Lebanon and Somalia after attacks on American soldiers.

"Arab states that have seen us pull out and essentially withdraw from our commitments are naturally hesitant to commit themselves to our policies," Sofaer said.

"One of the things that undermines our efforts to get support for these kinds of policies is the conviction by our Arab friends that we don't have any staying power."

But if the United States demonstrates a seriousness about pursuing and debilitating bin Laden, Sofaer said, "I would suspect we will get more overt support in the Middle East."

He expects Jordan and Egypt, in particular, to stand up and back the U.S. assault on bin Laden's forces. Morocco and Oman may do so as well, he said.

Last week, Washington broke with recent policy by acting unilaterally.

"I was very, very pleased that Great Britain and certain other Western countries have supported us," Sofaer said. "I think that was a very good job of diplomacy by the Clinton administration that they went to certain other leaders and got their support."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.