Israel Reacts with Pain, Surprise at Tough Talk from Washington

Israel has reacted with hurt and astonishment to the stern rebuke it got from U.S. Secretary of State James Baker during his appearance Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington.

The secretary bluntly accused Israel of not being serious about peace. Attempts by the Bush administration Thursday to soften the blow did little to soothe injured feelings here.

With their new government in office only since Monday, the Israelis feel unfairly pushed by their American allies.

“Never mind 100 days of grace, they’re not even giving the new government 100 hours of grace,” Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s spokesman, Avi Pazner, said Thursday.

“A little patience would be in place to give the new government a chance to formulate its policy,” Pazner added.

Israeli officials complained that President Bush had not bothered telephoning Shamir to congratulate him on forming a new government, nor had he responded to Shamir’s message of congratulations on the president’s 66th birthday.

Nor has there been any American response yet to broad hints from the new foreign minister, David Levy, for an early invitation to Washington to meet with Bush and Baker.

In Washington, a State Department official said that neither Shamir nor Levy had asked the United States for invitations to visit.

“There are not usually any invitations,” the official said. “Usually they (the Israelis) say they would like to come. Nobody said they are not welcome.”

The State Department also made the point that it is waiting for Israel to approach the United States on restarting the peace process, which so far Israel has not done.

Pazner said the prime minister intended to renew the high-level dialogue with the United States “soon” and was confident it would not be conducted by telephone.

GENUINELY COMMITTED TO PEACE

Observers here also point to a series of deliberately moderate-sounding statements by Shamir and Levy since the new government was installed Monday.

They said a number of statements were aimed at casing tension between Jerusalem and Washington. Israel was therefore taken aback by Baker’s sharp comments, which have been characterized on both sides of the Atlantic as the harshest public criticism of Israel by a U.S. secretary of state.

Baker was clearly angered by Shamir’s refusal to accept the American formula for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He accused Shamir of adding new conditions that virtually rule out talks with the Palestinians.

He referred to a Shamir interview in the Jerusalem Post that quoted the prime minister as saying he would talk only to Palestinians who accepted Israeli terms in advance.

Baker also bridled over reported remarks by other members of the new Israeli government that the American plan was no longer relevant.

The Israelis were stung when Baker announced the White House telephone number and said, “When you’re serious about peace, call us.”

Levy, addressing the Foreign Ministry staff Wednesday, his first day on the job, said it was wrong to regard the new government as hard-line.

It is genuinely committed to the pursuit of the peace process, the foreign minister said. He added that he would try to explain to the Americans the points on which Israel could not give ground and those where progress was possible.

Levy said there are certain basic principles on which Israel and the United State see eye-to-eye. He noted that the highest levels of the American administration repeatedly have asserted U.S. opposition to a separate Palestinian state or to forcing Israel to accept the Palestine Liberation Organization as a negotiating partner.

What is needed is to reach a solid agreement on those two cardinal points and proceed from there, Levy said.

WHITE HOUSE DEFENDS BAKER

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler defended Baker’s rebuke to Israel, saying it was made in response to “very public comments” made by various officials in the new Likud government.

At the White House, press spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said President Bush “agrees with (Baker’s) position absolutely.”

“In the final analysis, the parties in the region have to want peace,” Fitzwater said. “And what (Baker) was saying was basically that if they want peace enough to get a dialogue going, it will happen and give us a call.”

Fitzwater revealed that after Baker announced the White House telephone number, it received 6,000 to 8,000 calls evenly divided about the secretary’s remarks.

In the organized Jewish community, however, there was no such divide, as Jewish groups sprang to Israel’s defense.

In New York, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said Baker’s testimony was “both surprising and disturbing, coming as it did just one day after the new government took office in Israel.”

B’nai B’rith urged the Bush administration to “give the newly constituted government of Israel a chance to formulate its peace program.”

Likewise, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith urged the U.S. government to “avoid prejudging the new administration until Mr. Shamir has the opportunity to clarify and develop his peace proposals.”

The United Synagogue of America, while admitting that the Conservative movement had “reason to be wary of the new government,” nevertheless urged Baker to tone down his criticism of Israel. “Tough talk is not what’s needed now,” it said.

The Zionist Organization of America said Baker’s “words and manner show a disrespect to a friendly nation and should have been more properly directed to Yasir Arafat.”

(JTA correspondent Howard Rosenberg in Washington contributed to this report.)

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