WASHINGTON (May. 23)
Secretary of State James Baker defended the speech he made Monday night before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee by telling reporters Tuesday it was “very balanced with respect to what we think is required of all the parties if we are going to move forward.”
Likewise, a top American Jewish leader reassured delegates to AIPAC’s 30th annual policy conference here Tuesday that Baker’s remarks about Israel the night before did not signal “a new statement of policy by the United States.”
Seymour Reich, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, warned some 1,200 delegates and 400 college students at the Sheraton Washington Hotel that taking Baker’s statements out of context “creates tensions when tensions do not possibly exist.”
He spoke to the group immediately prior to Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who did not use the opportunity to comment specifically on Baker’s address.
Nevertheless, many of the AIPAC delegates seemed concerned by the blunt tone of some of Baker’s remarks, in which he called upon Israeli leaders to abandon “the unrealistic vision of a Greater Israel,” to “forswear annexation” and to “stop settlement activity.”
He balanced those remarks with a demand that the Palestinians bring a halt to violence and abandon their own unrealistic visions for the stage-by-stage destruction of Israel. And he called on the Arab nations to end their economic boycott of the Jewish state and to renounce past statements equating Zionism with racism.
U.S. ALWAYS OPPOSED ANNEXATION
Reich pointed out that “the government of the United States has said for years that it is against the annexation of the territories.”
He added, however, that in its peace plan calling for the Palestinians to elect representatives to negotiate with Israel on self-rule, “the State of Israel has probably gone as far as it can go at the present time and needs the encouragement of its allies.”
For the most part, American Jewish leaders interviewed in New York on Tuesday agreed with the secretary of state that his remarks were balanced, although some expressed reservations about the even-handedness of Baker’s hard-hitting speech.
And in contrast to the AIPAC delegates and some media reports of the speech, which characterized it as a surprisingly bold challenge to Israelis, some observers focused instead on what they see as positive elements of the address.
These included Baker’s restatement of the importance of the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship and his characterization of America’s bipartisan support for Israel as “a great and enduring achievement.”
“All those things were in the speech,” said Dr. George Gruen, director of Israel and Middle East affairs at the American Jewish Committee.
“I can understand why some of the Israelis would be unhappy with some of the references. But to argue that there is not in this speech a reaffirmation of the traditional strategic and economic cooperation between the countries is not true,” he said.
Ira Silverman, executive vice president of AJCommittee, called Baker’s speech “both timely and correct.”
Overall, the group “agrees with Secretary Baker that it is necessary for both sides, the Israelis, the Arab states and the Palestinians, to take concrete measures to build confidence and move the peace process forward,” Silverman said in a statement.
‘SURPRISE AND CONCERN’ EXPRESSED
Phil Baum, associate executive director of the American Jewish Congress, called Baker’s speech “a sobering but reassuring assessment that there has not been a departure from America’s continuing policy toward Israel.”
Baum said the speech indicated there are areas of disagreement between the countries, but he pointed out that it did contain Baker’s qualified support for the Israeli government’s recent peace initiative.
But the careful balance of Baker’s speech troubled some observers, including Kenneth Jacobson, associate director of the international affairs division of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
“I think Baker was a little more obligated to come forward with a much more pro-Israel tone,” he said.
“To balance longtime Arab rejection of Israel together with someone’s vision of a ‘Greater Israel’ is unproductive. It’s unclear that any Israeli government has taken a position on that.”
And Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director, said in a statement, “Unfortunately, the message that many may draw from Mr. Baker’s presentation is that those who come forward for peace and those who resist it are alike.”
Similarly, the Zionist Organization of America expressed “surprise and concern” at Baker’s remarks.
ZOA President Paul Flacks said in a statement that his organization was grateful that Baker called on the Palestine Liberation Organization to amend its charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel. Baker demanded that Palestinians “speak with one voice for peace.”
But Flacks said that Baker “incorrectly suggests that the responsibility for finding the solution to the problem is an equal burden between Israelis and the Palestinians. The historical facts clearly indicate that the acts of war and terrorism have been directed against Israel by the Arabs and Palestinians.”
INTENDED TO PRESSURE ISRAEL?
At least one leader, however, questioned whether a tough approach by the administration is necessarily bad for Israel.
“The deeper question is, which is better for Israel?” said Albert Vorspan, senior vice president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
“Is it better to hear reassuring words in a lot of emotionally laden cliches, or to hear the tough truth about what has to be done on both sides?”
In Los Angeles, meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said Baker’s words do not represent a new Washington viewpoint, but summarize previous themes of U.S. policy.
Thomas Pickering also denied that the Baker statement was intended to put pressure on Israel, an interpretation not fully accepted by Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the World Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency Executive, who participated with the U.N. envoy in a lecture at the Stephen Wise Temple.
Speaking at a news conference before the lecture, Dinitz said that if Baker’s speech was meant to pressure Israel, “it would not be helpful at this stage of the game after the government’s far-reaching and generous offer of elections in the territories.”
He said the “thrust of U.S. policy should be to encourage” acceptance of the Israeli offer.
(Contributing to this report were JTA staff writer Andrew Silow Carroll in New York, correspondents David Friedman and Howard Rosenberg in Washington and correspondent Tom Tugend in Los Angeles.)