Rabin Visit Raises Questions About Role of American Jewry

Yitzhak Rabin returned to Israel last week able to boast that the relationship between the Israeli prime minister and the American president were once again warm and close.

The same could not be said, however, about his relations with the American Jewish community.

In a closed-door session with the top professional and four senior lay leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he reportedly berated the pro-Israel lobby for fighting losing battles and needlessly straining U.S.-Israeli relations.

And at a public speech before hundreds of Jewish leaders in New York, Rabin left many listeners feeling “blind-sided” by his curtness and his insistence that decisions are made in Jerusalem.

The common denominator was that the new prime minister envisions a greatly changed — and reduced — role for American Jews in maintaining the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“It’s clearly going to require an adjustment on the part of the American Jewish community,” said David Harris, executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee.

“The American Jewish community certainly saw itself as an important actor in influencing the ebb and flow of U.S.-Israel relations, nurturing its strength, moving it along, advancing it in consultation both in Washington and Jerusalem,” he said.

“Prime Minister Rabin has given a very clear signal he sees things differently.”

Observers, both here and in Israel, attribute much of Rabin’s attitude to his stint as Israel’s ambassador to Washington, where he served as a liaison between the Prime Minister’s Office and the White House. And they note as well a general reluctance on his part to delegate authority and heed advisers.

‘SORT OF A SECOND FIDDLE’

In Israel, reports of his remarks at the AIPAC meeting were followed by newspaper editorials criticizing his failure to appreciate the role of American Jewry and of AIPAC.

And there are predictions that Rabin’s posture will not hold as he learns how Washington works in 1992.

“The prime minister has traditionally had the feeling that you deal only with the head of state, and that Congress and the American Jewish community is sort of a second fiddle,” said Stuart Eizenstat, a top aide to Jimmy Carter who is vice chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

“Things have markedly changed since the prime minister was in power” the last time, Eizenstat said.

“Congress now has a much greater role in foreign policy than they did in the ’70s when Rabin was previously prime minister. At the same time, the American Jewish community has flexed its political muscle to a much greater degree,” he said.

American Jews may not want to go back into the political closet. But some observers see less of a need for American Jewish political activism, now that many of the community’s longstanding objectives have been achieved.

They cite the recent resolution of the U.S.-Israeli dispute over loan guarantees, the repeal of the U.N. General Assembly’s hateful 1975 resolution on Zionism, the end of Israel’s diplomatic isolation around the world and the opening of immigration to hundreds of thousands of Jews in the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and elsewhere.

“I think Israel will be taking back much of the bilateral relationship from elements of the American Jewish community and the shtadlanim, or intermediaries,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“The fact (that) there’s a better relationship, better communication, that the phone lines are open means there’s less need for the American Jewish community to protest, complain and intervene,” he said.

‘NOT INTERESTED IN WHAT YOU THINK’

But for others, Rabin’s tone in his address last week to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations went beyond simply saying that, having solved its largest problems, Israel does not need quite as much help.

Harris of AJCommittee contrasted Rabin’s tone with that of his predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir. He noted how Rabin stopped the applause “dead in its tracks,” after referring to the housing cuts he had made in the administered territories.

“He said, ‘I’m not interested in what you think,’ even though the applause was supportive of him,” said Harris, paraphrasing the prime minister’s remarks. “I don’t recall such a moment with Shamir.”

Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, speculated that Rabin’s remarks were in part a reaction to the tendency in recent years for American Jews and organizations to play an intermediary role, carrying messages “from an Israeli government that no longer had any clear communications with the U.S. administration.”

Rabin “saw that, rightly so, as an aberration and indication of a sick relationship,” he said.

But Siegman agreed with those who accused Rabin of underestimating the political importance of the American Jewish community.

“If he thinks President Bush granted Israel the loan guarantees due entirely to the warmth of Rabin’s personality and to the innate importance of that relationship, he’s mistaken,” the AJCongress leader said.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents, said that, judging from his private meeting with Rabin, too much is being made of some of the prime minister’s statements.

“Rabin was outlining his priorities and his approach. This is not to the exclusion of the role of the American Jewish community, nor do I think he will in any way minimize the role,” said Hoenlein.

He noted that Rabin spoke about the commonalities of interests between American Jewry and Israel in his opening remarks to the conference. And he suggested that other statements made by Rabin have been misinterpreted.

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