- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

The White House yesterday stepped up its rhetoric against Hamas, but distanced itself from an influential Republican senator’s suggestion that U.S. troops pursue the terrorist group.

“Make no mistake:Hamas is an enemy to the reformists in the Palestinian Authority and to the Palestinian people, who deserve a state,” White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters aboard Air Force One.

But Mr. Fleischer disagreed with Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who suggested on “Fox News Sunday” that U.S. forces pursue Hamas in the Middle East.

“The president’s message is that the best security comes from the Israelis and Palestinians working together to fight terror,” Mr. Fleischer said.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher dismissed the idea of U.S. troops in the Middle East as “above and beyond” the administration’s policy of sending in monitors. Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf was dispatched to the region during the weekend with a team of monitors to keep track of the peace process.

Mr. Boucher emphasized that Palestinians, not Americans, must crack down on Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Middle East.

“The Palestinian Authority needs to set up a security force that can take control of the area, that can defeat the terrorists and do everything they can to defeat those who want to deny the establishment of a Palestinian state,” he said.

But Mr. Lugar said the Palestinian Authority under its new prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, “simply does not have security forces that are adequate to take on Hamas, quite apart from even the territories being suggested for his security now.”

Asked whether that meant “international forces ought to be going after Hamas,” Mr. Lugar said: “That may be the conclusion.”

While dismissing the notion of deploying U.S. troops to the Middle East, the administration agreed that something needs to be done about Palestinian terrorist groups that are trying to derail the peace process. Peace efforts got a boost this month when President Bush attended several Middle East summits.

“Hamas is clearly an obstacle to peace,” Mr. Boucher said. “Along with the other violent groups — Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Palestinian Islamic Jihad — they’ve continued acts of terrorism, acts of violence that have resulted in death and destruction.”

Mr. Fleischer agreed.

“There are threats to the Israelis, threats to the Palestinians,” he said. “They come principally from Hamas and from the other groups of a rejectionist nature, a rejectionist front, who have no interest in peace, who do not support creation of a Palestinian state, and who represent a threat to the Palestinian people, who deserve a better way of life.”

Mr. Lugar suggested on Sunday that U.S. troops, perhaps as part of a NATO or U.N. force, could go after terrorist groups in the Middle East.

“It may not be just Hamas, but clearly Hamas is right in the gun sights,” he said.

However, he emphasized that a U.S. military presence would not be advisable until the bloodshed ends and all Israeli-Palestinian talks have been successfully concluded.

“But clearly, if force is required ultimately to rout terrorism, it is possible that there will be an American participation,” Mr. Lugar said.

The idea of sending U.S. or other third-party forces to keep the peace between Israelis and Palestinians has been floated by various observers for years. Last month, for example, Martin Indyk, who was U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Clinton, proposed that American forces set up a trusteeship that would handle security in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“On the Palestinian side there is simply no credible institution capable of constraining the terrorist organizations and armed militias responsible for the violence,” Mr. Indyk wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine.

But he later told The Washington Times that it was highly unlikely that Mr. Bush would attempt to establish such a trusteeship. Many Americans believe U.S. troops might as well be wearing bull’s-eyes if they go to the Middle East, because they would almost certainly be targeted by terrorists.

Mr. Bush said Sunday that “those who love freedom and peace must deal harshly with Hamas and the killers.” But in a White House meeting yesterday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice reportedly discouraged Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s chief of staff from advocating a policy of assassinating Hamas leaders.

The United States refuses to negotiate with Hamas because it is a terrorist organization. But the administration has not stopped Egyptian officials from trying to negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas.

“We’re not the puppet masters,” Mr. Boucher said. “We don’t control everybody in the world. We don’t approve of every meeting that everybody in the world has.”

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