News Analysis;u.s. and Israel See Shamir Visit As Opportunity to ‘clear the Air’

The Bush administration and the Israeli government are looking at next week’s meeting between President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir as an opportunity to set aside the tensions that have strained relations between the two nations in recent months.

“Both men, Bush and Shamir, are conscious that the stories of the bad chemistry between them” have “gotten out of hand,” David Harris, executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee, said Monday after he and six other top officials of the group held a 45-minute meeting here with Shamir.

“Our reading is that both sides would like this to be a positive meeting and to contribute to removing recent tensions, frictions and misunderstandings,” he said.

Harris was here heading an AJCommittee solidarity mission to Israel, dubbed “Operation Undaunted,” that brought 125 of the group’s top members from across the United States to meet with Israeli political leaders and tour the country.

Shamir will meet with the president on Dec. 11, a day after receiving the Jabotinsky Foundation’s Defender of Jerusalem Award in New York. While in Washington, he is also scheduled to meet with Vice President Dan Quayle, Secretary of State James Baker, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and members of Congress.

While Shamir will not ask Bush for any new economic or military aid, he is expected to lay the groundwork for future additional U.S. aid to help Israel resettle the thousands of Soviet Jewish immigrants arriving each week.

“I believe that we will find receptive ears in this regard,” Zalman Shoval, Israel’s new ambassador to the United States, told representatives of the Jewish news media in Washington on Tuesday.

MILITARY AID AFTER THE GULF CRISIS

A pro-Israel lobbyist in Washington said Israel will seek hundreds of millions of dollars in new U.S. refugee assistance at a later date. Such aid would be in the form of U.S. guarantees for loans from private banks, like the $400 million in U.S. housing assistance for the immigrants approved earlier this year.

In the military sphere, Israel wants to wait until the end of the Persian Gulf crisis before asking for any new weaponry. Shamir feels that such proposals “should only be decided upon after this crisis is over,” Shoval said.

That position appears to be aimed at thwarting any new U.S. arms flow to Arab countries as the crisis wears on. The Bush administration is expected to propose a $15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia after the new Congress convenes in January.

From Israel’s standpoint, the success of the Bush-Shamir meeting depends in part on how Washington handles proposals currently before the U.N. Security Council to step up monitoring of conditions for Palestinians under Israeli administration.

If Washington supports the idea of convening the signatories of the Fourth Geneva Convention to discuss the Palestinian situation, or if it backs a proposal to dispatch a U.N. ombudsman to monitor the situation in the administered territories, that would be a source of deep concern for Israel and would exacerbate current U.S.-Israeli tensions, said Harris of AJCommittee.

If the United States fails to veto any U.N. resolutions to that effect, “it will certainly harm the goals that both countries have in this meeting” between Bush and Shamir, said Shoval.

For its part, the United States wants Shamir to give a strong reaffirmation of his commitment to the peace process and demonstrate his “willingness to consider ideas that could lead to a breakthrough,” said Harris, who met with White House officials before setting out for Israel.

The Bush administration will be “watching Shamir’s public statements from now until Dec. 11″ for any sign of progress in the peace process, he said.

Bush and Shamir are expected to limit their discussion of the peace process to finding “creative ways” to restart the process once the Gulf crisis is over, according to Ruth Yaron, the Israeli Embassy spokeswoman in Washington. That phrase has been used in several diplomatic notes over the past few months between Baker and Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy.

KEEPING AN ALLY ‘IN THE CLOSET’

The White House also expects Israel to continue maintaining a “low profile” in the Gulf crisis and to remain supportive of the administration’s policy.

Shamir will “reiterate Israel’s solidarity with the United States and its willingness to be helpful,” Shoval said.

But the prime minister will also emphasize “the fact that Israel is America’s strongest ally de facto in the Middle East,” he said. “There’s a limit how much you can keep an ally in the closet.”

Harris said the AJCommittee delegation had not detected a sense of concern from Shamir and other Israeli leaders about Bush’s decision to send Secretary of State Baker to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Shamir and Foreign Minister David Levy reportedly have urged Cabinet ministers to squelch any public criticism of the American move, given Israel’s delicate position and its desire not to be perceived as a nation of warmongers.

But concern about the diplomatic initiative surfaced at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting and is widely reflected in the news media here.

Harris characterized Shamir’s stance as one of full support for U.S. policy in the Gulf, “coupled with hope that the U.S. will keep its eyes wide open as it traverses uncharted territory.”

In Washington, an Israeli Embassy official said that one of Shamir’s aims in his meeting with Bush will be to focus on the “broader aspects” of the Gulf crisis, an apparent reference to Iraq’s chemical and nuclear weapons capabilities.

Shamir is also expected to seek reassurances from Bush that the United States will continue to oppose any linkage between the Gulf crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Harris said.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, who will be in Washington to meet with senior U.S. officials meeting, is expected to insist on some sort of linkage as his country’s price for a withdrawal from Kuwait.

U.S. and Israeli officials say that because of the need to preserve cooperation in the Gulf crisis, the Bush-Shamir meeting will be less contentious than it otherwise might be if, for instance, the Arab-Israeli peace process were the major item on the agenda.

ATTEMPT TO ‘DISPEL FALSE PERCEPTIONS’

News reports have indicated that Bush does not like Shamir personally, that he considers the Israeli leader unyielding, especially on the subject of increased Jewish settlement in the territories.

Before the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Bush administration had been publicly critical of Israel for rejecting a U.S. proposal to hold preliminary peace negotiations with a Palestinian delegation in Cairo.

Israel objected because the delegation was to have included residents of East Jerusalem and former residents of the West Bank or Gaza Strip whom Israel had deported.

The rhetoric reached its pinnacle June 13, when Secretary of State Baker denounced officials in Shamir’s new Likud government for implying that Israel would not talk to Palestinians unless they acceded in advance to Israel’s positions.

In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Baker recited the telephone number of the White House switchboard and added that when Israel is “serious about peace, call us.”

Now both countries are trying to “dispel false perceptions” and “clear the air,” said Ambassador Shoval. The two sides should not let “unnecessary differences of opinion” get in the way of issues of greater importance, he said.

Good intentions aside, Israelis are approaching the White House meeting with a certain measure of wariness. A joke making its way through Israeli circles in Washington goes something like this: “The last time a Jewish leader met with a bush resulted in the Jews wandering in the desert for 40 years.”

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

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