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News Analysis; Baker Decision Not to Visit Israel Indication of U.s.-israeli Tensions

The prospect of another sweep through the Middle East by Secretary of State James Baker, with Israel pointedly omitted from his itinerary, has deepened anxieties in Jerusalem this week over the state of relations with Washington.

Yet at the same time, the Israeli government has not formally suggested to the Bush administration that Baker add Israel to his tour. The secretary leaves Saturday for Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, France and Britain.

In fact, some Israeli officials feel it might be better that Baker skip Israel until the still-seething confrontation over the Temple Mount episode simmers down.

Baker said Monday that he wants to go to Israel, but not on his present trip, to prevent any linkage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Persian Gulf crisis.

“I very much want to go to Israel, and I intend to go Israel at the earliest possible opportunity,” he said in reply to a question after addressing the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Tuesday that Jewish leaders have urged that Baker go to Israel since he has never visited the country.

But other sources said the Jewish community is divided over whether to press the issue in the midst of the Gulf confrontation.

BUSH MEETING WITH SHAMIR IN DOUBT

Meanwhile, the potential for increased U.S. Israeli tension looms in Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s upcoming visit to New York, where he is to receive the Defender of Jerusalem Award from the Jabotinsky Foundation on Dec. 10.

Although Shamir has not requested a meeting with President Bush at this time and may not because of the Persian Gulf crisis, the failure to have such a meeting would be viewed with concern by the American Jewish community.

It would be seen as a replay of the situation last November, when Bush met with Shamir but waited until six days before the premier’s arrival to invite him to the White House.

Bush’s stalling angered many in the Jewish community, who charged that the Israeli leader was being insulted.

An initiative to forestall a replay of that scenario was high on the agenda of a meeting four leading Jewish Republicans had with Bush on Oct. 22.

The four longtime associates of Bush — Max Fisher of Detroit; George Klein of New York; Jacob Stein of Great Neck, N.Y.; and Gordon Zacks of Columbus, Ohio — reportedly urged the president to meet with Shamir.

But they got the “cold shoulder” from the president, who did not respond to their urging, according to a source not present at the meeting.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Stein refused to confirm the report on the meeting, explaining that all those present agreed not to comment on the conversation with Bush.

But Stein acknowledged that one of the problems between Israel and the United States is a “lack of personal relations” between the top officials of the Bush administration and the Shamir government. Good personal relations have always resulted in good relations between the two countries, he said.

Hoenlein agreed that good personal relations are necessary, but expressed doubt that Bush was urged to meet with Shamir. He said such a meeting would first have to be requested by the Israeli leader.

TEMPLE MOUNT ISSUE STILL LIVE

The most recent irritant in U.S.-Israeli relations has been the controversy over Israel’s handling of the Oct. 8 riots on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

The United States was miffed at Israel’s refusal to cooperate with a U.N. investigation of the incident, despite a direct appeal Bush made in writing to Shamir. Israel, in turn, was offended that Washington supported the two U.N. Security Council resolutions criticizing Israel’s behavior.

U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar was poised this week to present a report to the Security Council that would note Israel’s defiance of the two resolutions. His report is likely to be followed by stepped-up pressure from the Arabs and Third World countries for tougher resolutions, including sanctions.

While Israel expects Washington to veto any sanctions, there is fear in Jerusalem that the U.S. position could eventually erode under ever-sharper Security Council condemnations of Israel.

Shamir continues to be adamant against admitting the U.N. team, and Perez de Cuellar does not seem to have any intention of agreeing to Israel’s suggestion that he make do with the Israeli inquiry into the Temple Mount incident.

Israeli officials are disappointed that the report, submitted to the government last weekend, did not ease U.N. pressures on Israel, despite a backhanded endorsement by the State Department.

Reviewing the report, department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler told reporters in Washington on Tuesday that the commission “found that Israeli police were required by life-threatening circumstances to use live ammunition, in addition to tear gas and rubber bullets.”

“The Israeli government, however, is aware of our views opposing the use of excessive or lethal force in maintaining law and order,” she said. “In this case, both the president and the secretary have said that Israeli use of live fire, resulting in the death of many people, appears to have been an excessive use of force.”

Tutwiler also made a point of noting that the report “criticized the attack on worshipers at the Western Wall” — a conclusion that she said is “consistent with our view.”

(Contributing to this report were JTA correspondents David Friedman and Howard Rosenberg in Washington, and Tom Tugend in Los Angeles.)

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