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Letter by Watt to Arens Draws Fire from Jewish Leaders and Major Political Figures

Jewish leaders and major political figures are reacting angrily to a warning by Interior Secretary James Watt that U.S. support for Israel could end if “liberals” in the American Jewish community continue to oppose the Administration’s energy policies. Many have demanded Watt’s resignation.

The implicit threat was contained in a letter from Watt to Israel’s Ambassador to Washington, Mashe Arens. The letter, dated June 17, stressed efforts to end “America’s dependency upon foreign crude energy” and observed that “If the liberals of the Jewish community join with the other liberals of this nation to oppose these efforts, they will weaken our ability to be a good friend of Israel. Your supporters in America need to know these facts.”

The White House disavowed the letter. Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes said yesterday, “The main quarrel we have with it is it does not represent Administration policy…it is not the President’s viewpoint.” The initial reaction from the White House Friday had been that the letter was “unfortunate.” But Watt insisted, in various public statements over the weekend that he had intended no threat and defended his position.

CHARGES ‘BARE-KNUCKLED BIGOTRY’

Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D. NY), accused the Secretary of “bare-knuckled bigotry” and declared that if Watt does not resign “President Reagan should dismiss him immediately.” Reps. Toby Moffett (D. Conn,) and Tom Lantos (D. Calif.) wrote to Reagan over the weekend: “Mr. Watt’s remarks were highly inappropriate and inflammatory. They suggest that America’s foreign policy is in some way linked to ‘Jewish’ and ‘liberal’ support of the Administration’s energy policy.”

Rep. Benjamin Rosenthal (D. NY) said it was “incredible for a Cabinet officer to make a statement like that. It clearly disqualifies him from continuing to serve in his post.”

Bertram Gold, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, suggested that “Secretary Watt should go back to school for a refresher course on the American political system, for he seems to question the right of Americans that hold opinions different from his.” Gold noted, “We are saying this despite the fact that the American Jewish Committee since 1972 has had a national task force on energy problems that has developed a comprehensive program in the energy field, rooted in the goal of ridding dependency on foreign oil.”

Hyman Bookinder, the AJCommittee’s Washington representative, said he was “concerned that Mr. Watt did not realize that if he had a message for the American Jewish community he could simply have picked up the phone and talked to any of us instead of doing what he did.” But Bookbinder said he did “not think too much should be made of this” because “it doesn’t go to the core of the problems facing the country and the Jewish community.”

Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, declared, “I don’t like to be appealed to as a Jew on an issue that is essentially of concern to all Americans.” That view was reflected in a Washington Post editorial today which asked, “Does Mr. Watt think of American Jews as foreign nationals? Does he really believe there is nothing wrong with the idea that the way to reach them is through a communication to the Embassy of Israel?”

WAIT STANDS BY HIS LETTER

Watt said in a telephone interview with The New York Times yesterday that, “The letter does not threaten anyone.” He said he stands by it because “Its intentions were right and it was properly worded.”

The Washington Post quoted him today as saying, “There’s no threat intended. To have a threat, you have today we’d do something if they (American Jews) didn’t do something.” His message, he claimed, was, “If you don’t support this, the Reagan Administration is going to go ahead doing what’s right whether you support it or not.”

The Secretary, appearing over the weekend on Mutual Radio’s “The Larry King Show,” a call-in talk program, explained that his letter to Arens was a follow-up to a friendly discussion he had had with the envoy at an Israel Bonds dinner last month at which the Ambassador was the principal speaker.

The letter came to light when it appeared last week in the Washington Times, a recently established daily of strong conservative views. There was no indications how the newspaper obtained the month-old letter.

A CONTROVERSIAL FIGURE

Watt, himself an ultra-conservative, has been a controversial figure since his appointment by Reagan as Secretary of Interior. He has been under attack by many politicians and conservationist groups for alleged despoliation of publicly owned land for private commercial exploitation. His critics represent the political spectrum from main line conservatives through moderates and liberals.

The latest controversy surrounding Watt stemmed from his recent decision to make one billion acres of outer continental shelf available to oil and gas developers and his plans to permit oil and gas exploration and drilling in Federal wilderness areas.

Last Wednesday, Watt sent a letter to 28 Congressmen criticizing them for attacking his off-share drilling proposals at a time when “Israel was embroiled in a war concerning her own survival and a liberated Lebanon.”

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