NEW YORK (Nov. 12)
President Bush sought Tuesday to make peace with the American Jewish community, which has been upset for months over his tough stand on an Israeli request for U.S. guarantees covering $10 billion in loans needed for immigrant resettlement.
At a late-afternoon meeting here with a delegation of American Jewish leaders, the president gave what was described as a heartfelt apology for making statements in September that were perceived by the Jewish community to be a direct attack on the pro-Israel lobby.
Bush also indicated that he is trying to set up a meeting in Washington next week with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who will be in the United States to address the annual General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations in Baltimore.
But the president refused to discuss the burning issue between the United States and Israel — the loan guarantees and their linkage to Israel’s settlement-building policy — until the 120-day delay in congressional action that he requested in September has expired.
“It’s open in January. We’ll take it up at that time,” Bush was quoted as saying.
The president did say, however, that he is committed to providing humanitarian assistance for the resettlement of Soviet Jewish immigrants in Israel, according to Shoshana Cardin, chairman of both the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.
The Jewish leaders conferred with Bush for more than an hour in the first such meeting since February. They were invited by the White House, a clear indication that Bush wanted to make amends.
‘UNDERSTAND THAT I HURT SOME PEOPLE’
The president said he was very troubled that some of his remarks had been taken as “hurtful words.”
“I understand that I hurt some people and that I may have unwittingly resurrected some ugly feelings,” the president was quoted as saying by Marvin Hier, dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, who attended the meeting.
“I certainly would not want to exacerbate anti-Semitism. And I intend to find the appropriate venues to correct that impression,” Hier quoted him as saying.
Cardin, who met privately with Bush prior to the larger meeting, said she and the other Jewish leaders felt encouraged by the president’s sincerity and good will.
But Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said it is “quite clear” that Bush will not “back away” on linking the loan guarantees to the issue of Israeli settlements.
Summing up the meeting, Siegman said, “We will probably continue to disagree on issues, but will not express the disagreement in ways that can be misconstrued.”
Cardin quoted Bush as saying that he feels the “time is right” to seek a repeal of the 1975 U.N. General Assembly resolution denigrating Zionism as a form of racism.
Bush also was quoted as saying that he is aware of an increase of anti-Semitism in the country and will not tolerate it. He reiterated his opposition to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s bid for the Louisiana governorship.
The president insisted that his support for Israel is rock solid, that he backs the right of Soviet Jews to immigrate there and is committed to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge.
He said the United States is committed to an undivided Jerusalem, but that details on the city’s permanent status would have to be worked out by the various parties to the Middle East conflict.
He also praised Shamir for heading the Israeli delegation to the Middle East peace conference in Madrid, calling it a positive contribution.
CONTRAST TO SEPTEMBER REMARKS
Bush’s attitude Tuesday was a far cry from his lectern-pounding performance at a Sept. 12 White House news conference, when he expressed concern that congressional debate over Israel’s loan guarantee request would derail the Middle East peace conference the United States was then trying to engineer.
Referring to some 1,000 pro-Israel activists who had arrived in Washington that day to lobby on behalf of the loan guarantees, Bush said he was one “lonely” guy “up against some powerful political forces.”
Joining Bush in the meeting Tuesday were White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, Dennis Ross of the State Department’s policy planning staff and Richard Haas of the National Security Council.
In addition to Cardin, Siegman and Hier, Jewish participants included Rabbi Moshe Sherer of Agudath Israel of America, Meyer Mitchell of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Alfred Moses of the American Jewish Committee, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, Kent Schiner of B’nai B’rith International, Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents.
Also, Charles Goodman of the Council of Jewish Federations, Deborah Kaplan of Hadassah, George Klein of the National Jewish Coalition, Rabbi Alexander Schindler of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Sheldon Rudoff of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Marvin Lender of the United Jewish Appeal, Alan Tichnor of the United Synagogue of America, Edgar Bronfman of the World Jewish Congress and veteran Jewish leader Max Fisher.