White House Official Asks Jews to Tone Down Criticism of U.S.

A key White House official implored American Jewish leaders this week to keep differences between Washington and Jerusalem “in perspective” and to make special efforts to “cool the rhetoric” over U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Richard Haass, a special assistant to President Bush on Arab-Israeli issues, made the appeal in a closed-door meeting here Monday with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The meeting was requested by Haass, who is senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council.

During the session, the Jewish leaders conveyed their “anguish and anger” over Bush administration policy toward Israel, particularly its stance on guaranteeing $10 billion in loans to help absorb immigrants, according to a spokesman for the conference.

Haass admitted that the administration had made errors in its relationship with Israel and said he regrets some of his own actions.

But there seemed little indication that his presentation would reverse the anti-Bush mood in the Jewish community, which vocally manifested itself when the president’s name was booed during an address Vice President Dan Quayle made last week to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in Washington.

“Haass was really reaching out, but there are clear differences” between the administration and the Jewish community, said Lawrence Rubin, executive vice chair of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

‘GUT-LEVEL ADMIRATION’ FOR ISRAEL

But Haass told the Jewish leaders that the administration’s relationship with the Israeli government and the Jewish community is “much more complex than the way it is caricatured.”

He conceded, however, that the relationship is “troubled and not as it should be or could be,” adding that “we in the administration also have our problems and our frustrations.”

As examples, he cited the “surge in West Bank settlement activity” and the administration’s inability to get complete answers from Israel on how it spent the $400 million in U.S.-guaranteed loans it received last year.

He also spoke of “inflammatory public statements” concerning U.S. motives in the Middle East, among them an allegation by an Israeli Cabinet minister that the administration had barred Quayle from meeting with him.

“Despite this,” Haass said, “U.S.-Israel relations are strong, there is a gut-level administration admiration for Israel’s accomplishments and a genuine appreciation of the risks Israel took in acceding to the American request not to respond to Iraqi Scud attacks during the Gulf war.”

As have other administration officials in recent weeks, Haass pointed to the administration’s “record of accomplishments” on matters of concern to Israel and American Jewry. He noted that “large-scale U.S. aid to Israel continues, and will in the future,” he said.

The administration has “actively encouraged the right of emigration from the Soviet Union and its successor states,” and is now working on behalf of Syrian Jews, he said. Prior to the meeting, Haass met with the families of Jews still trapped in Syria.

SAYS U.S. HAS NO ‘HIDDEN AGENDA’

Haass cited the repeal in December of the United Nations resolution branding Zionism as racism as another administration accomplishment.

“And a truly historic peace process was begun and continues,” he said.

But he said administration officials “reject the charge that in asking Israel to freeze West Bank settlements as a condition for obtaining $10 billion in loan guarantees, we have a ‘hidden agenda’ that includes plans to push Israel back to the 1967 borders, divide the city of Jerusalem once again, support a Palestinian state or create a precedent for linking American aid to Israel with U.S. political requirements.”

Haass said American Jews have the right to disapprove of their government’s policies toward Israel.

“I believe you can differ with Israel and still be a Zionist, just as you can differ with American policy and still be patriotic,” he said.

But he added that he is “troubled by the fact that the debate in this country over Middle East policy is too shrill, given the uncertainties that surround every issue. That shrillness is not good for any of the participants in the debate.

“Let’s get better at agreeing and disagreeing,” he said.

One Jewish leader argued after the meeting that the problems the administration is having with Israel and its supporters are more than just a matter of bad communication.

“What’s wrong is not only the communication, but some of the substance and attitude of the administration toward Israel,” said David Harris, executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee.

Like other participants in the meeting, he urged Haass to carry back to the White House the need not only for better consultation but for concrete gestures and actions to buttress U.S.-Israeli relations.

NO PARALLEL PRESSURE ON ARABS

During the discussion, the Jewish leaders raised a number of issues, including concern that the administration did not fully understand the unanimous support of the American Jewish community for Israel’s request for loan guarantees, despite differences over settlements.

“I agree this administration has some significant accomplishments regarding Israel and Jewish issues; my view is this does not justify or explain their opposition on the loan guarantees,” said Rubin of NJCRAC.

After the discussion, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, approached Haass and asked him about the administration’s balance.

“Why is the administration coming down very hard on Israel, while (peace) negotiations are under way, without there being parallel issues being placed on the Arab countries on arms control, the boycott, etc.?” asked Yoffie.

How did Haass respond? “He ducked the question” Yoffie said afterward.

NEXT STORY