The Bush administration rejected calls last night for the US to rein in the government of Ariel Sharon, despite escalating Israeli attacks in the Occupied Territories, and reiterated its demand that Yasser Arafat do more to crack down on the Palestinian hardliners held responsible for the weekend terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa.
"Obviously Israel has a right to defend itself and the president understands that," Ari Fleischer, President Bush's White House spokesman, said when asked how the US viewed the Israeli missile strikes in Gaza and the West Bank.
"This is a real opportunity for Chairman Arafat to show in actions, not words, that he will take action that is enduring and meaningful against the terrorists and those who sponsor the terrorist attacks that took place in Israel."
Mr Fleischer added that Mr Bush "has believed for quite a period of time that Yasser Arafat is capable of doing much more than he has ever done, and now the burden is on him to show it... It's important that Chairman Arafat move beyond where he has been before - to take concrete actions, to show that this is not the way for the future and it should not be the way of the present."
Smoke rises after Israeli warplanes hit the Palestinian security headquarters in the Gaza Strip December 4, 2001. Israel attacked Palestinian cities across the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Tuesday, hitting just beyond Yasser Arafat's main West Bank headquarters while he was inside, but he was not hurt. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
But Mr Fleischer drew attention to remarks by Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, on Sunday when he urged both sides to think about the consequences of what they do in the heat of the moment. "It's important that whatever actions are taken, that all parties need to consider the repercussions of the actions so that peace can still be achieved," he said.
It was unclear how long the US will be content to stay on the sidelines if the Israeli attacks increase and the casualty toll grows. Mr Fleischer said the situation was being monitored closely. But in the meantime, the tenor of the White House's remarks, putting all the onus on Mr Arafat, and the absence of any form of caution or rebuke to Mr Sharon, strengthened the impression that Mr Bush had given the green light for Israel's retaliatory actions when he held private talks in Washington on Sunday with Mr Sharon.
The administration's choice of emphasis will also increase concern in the Arab world that despite its efforts to revive the Middle East peace process, and its dispatch of two senior envoys to the region in the past week, the US cannot act as an impartial peace-broker.
Mr Fleischer refused to accept a reporter's suggestion equating Mr Arafat with Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader in Afghanistan. But senior US officials, speaking off the record, have increasingly likened terrorist attacks in Israel to the anti-American activities of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network and have questioned Mr Arafat's commitment (and ability) to end the violence.
Israeli spokesmen, and the former Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who is visiting the US, have repeatedly tried to draw a parallel between their conflict with Palestinian extremists and the broader US war on terrorism.
Although it was too early to speak of a definitive pro-Israeli shift in policy, the Bush administration's apparent acquiescence in Israel's actions yesterday and its refusal to respond to appeals by Palestinian officials for American intervention were seen in Washington as a clear sign that Mr Bush's position is hardening.
Despite yesterday's violence, the US says the attempt by its special envoy, former Marine General Anthony Zinni, to help mediate a new ceasefire will continue for now.
Mr Powell warned at the weekend that Mr Arafat and his Palestinian Authority risked being overthrown by extremists unless they took effective steps to stop suicide bombers and other terrorist attacks on Israel. He said Mr Arafat was facing "a moment of truth".
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001