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Special Interview the United States and Israel

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Morris Abram, the new chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, believes that American-Israeli relations today are “as good as they have ever been.” He asserts that America supports Israel not only because the two nations share the same values but also because it is in America’s “practical interests to support the safety and survival of Israel.”

The 68-year-old Abram, a prominent New York lawyer and a former aide to four U.S. Presidents, succeeded Kenneth Bialkin, who completed his second one-year term in June.

A senior partner in the New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind Wharton and Garrison, Abram, who is also chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, served in various posts under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Reagan. He resigned as vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights upon his election to the chairmanship of the Presidents Conference.

Assertive, well-spoken and well-informed, Abram discussed in a special interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency major issues that concern the Presidents Conference, including Israeli-American relations, relations between Israel and the Presidents Conference, the extent of the Conference’s influence in Washington and the prospects for peace in the Mideast.

Following are excerpts of the 45-minute interview:

Q: How do you view the present relationships between Israel and the United States?

A: The relationships are as good as they have ever been, primarily because this Administration sees its support of Israel in the context of the vital interests of the Western free world. It is in American practical interests to support the safety and survival of the State of Israel. That manifests in many ways: President Reagan’s and Secretary of State George Shultz’s view of the strategic tie-up between the two countries, the fight against terrorism as part of American foreign policy, and the free-zone trade agreement between Israel and the U.S. All these indicate that there is not only the old basis for the relationships — the basis of shared values — but also a new basis of mutual interests.

THE POLLARD AFFAIR

Q: Did the Pollard affair influence in any way the relations between the two countries?

A: First of all, both Reagan and Shultz have acted consistently in such a way as to not let this one-time dereliction inflict any damage on the relationships. They treated it as an aberrational act.

I am sure the American citizens involved should be pursued and punished to the fullest extent of the law. I am positive that Reagan and Shultz wish to limit the affair and that the U.S. and Israel remain friends and allies which need each other.

Let’s be clear: The U.S. is a super-power, with a large margin of safety. Israel is a small state which does not enjoy a large margin of safety. Therefore, it is beset by the problems created by its enemies and, as a result, its needs are greater. Nevertheless, American foreign policy recognizes that Israel’s needs for security are congruous with American interests.

Q: To what extent does the Presidents Conference have influence on the Administration?

A: The Presidents Conference is a collection of elected heads of American Jewish organizations. It takes its direction from them and tries to express the will and the opinions of this community. The American Jewish community is a vital functioning of American democracy and it has a certain influence — as it should have — upon American policy-makers. It is not pretentious enough to say it’s a shaper of policy, but it adds its influence to elements that shape policy. It does it openly, as others do in a free society.

Q: Can you give some examples?

A: The Presidents Conference had some influence, for instance, in the shaping of the ultimate arms-package to Saudi Arabia recently. But we were not the sole shapers of the policy. There were scores of Senators and Congressmen who joined, believing that certain weapons, such as the Stinger missiles, should not be sold to the Saudis out of the fear that they might end up in the hands of terrorists.

Q: Why didn’t you strongly oppose the sale altogether?

A: You have to make a judgment as to when you most effectively can deal with an issue. It was believed that was the best course to follow, especially when the most dangerous part of the deal — the Stinger missiles — was withdrawn….

THE PRESIDENTS CONFERENCE AND ISRAEL

Q: Does the Presidents Conference receive directions from the government of Israel, or does it express the Israeli point of view?

A: We are completely independent. Israel’s ultimate decisions must be Israel’s. Its actions and opinions are expressed by its representatives. We can’t decide what the policy of Israel should be. The Presidents Conference expresses the consensus of the organized American Jewish community. I would listen, however, very carefully to the opinions and views of the elected officials of Israel.

Q: Do you see a situation where Israel and the Presidents Conference will have “a confrontation?”

A: Theoretically, I can conceive a difference of opinion between the Presidents Conference and the government of Israel. I hope it never happens on fundamental issues. But I don’t anticipate any great divide or schism in the future.

PROSPECTS FOR MIDEAST PEACE

Q: What are the prospects for peace in the Mideast, in your view?

A: One always hopes for peace. But I am aware of the fact that there has been no complete peace in the area and that for 40 years there has been a situation of war or near war.

I think the peace with Egypt is a big plus. Also, King Hussein’s apparent desire to come to the peace table is another plus. The fact is that Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are friends of the U.S. on the one side, and Israel and the U.S. are also friends, while the mortal enemy of Israel, Iraq, is engaged in a long, deadly war with Iran. That leaves Syria alone as a danger to engage Israel in war. Viewing the situation as such, one might say that there are still chances for peace.

Q: Apart from U.S. Mideast policy and the situation in that area, what are the other major issues on the agenda of the Presidents Conference?

A: Well, we are very much concerned with the economic situation of Israel and the decline in tourism to Israel as a result of terrorism. Franklin Roosevelt once said: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ We have to remember that when we deal with the decline of tourism because of international terrorism.

We are also concerned with the situation of Jewish communities in distress around the world, especially the fate of Soviet Jews as well as the Jewish communities of Syria and Ethiopia.

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