NEW YORK (Jul. 16)
The first U.S. visit by Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel was widely viewed as a triumph when measured by his reception in the media, the Congress, the financial world and the official Jewish community.
From the stock exchange to the hotel pep rally of thousands sponsored by New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council, he was welcomed with an exuberance and affection reserved for a well-loved son returning home.
But after six days of fielding questions with his already-signature American- style flair and political aplomb, it remained unclear to many whether the new Israeli premier is an ideologue or a pragmatist and what course he will pursue in the peace process.
Some wonder whether Netanyahu’s hard-line public declarations on Palestinian nationalism were negotiating gambits or portend a return to an era of U.S.- Israel tensions, which reached a height during Yitzhak Shamir’s tenure as prime minister.
Centrist Jewish organizations that openly backed the path to peace pursued by Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres say it is simply too soon to determine whether U.S.-Israel tensions will materialize because of Jewish settlements, the fate of Jerusalem and other hot-button issues.
Others long uncomfortable with the course of the Rabin-Peres peace policy were delighted to have Netanyahu unapologetically holding the Palestinian Authority accountable at every opportunity.
“This is a central difference between this and the previous government,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, who said Netanyahu “absolutely won over the hearts and minds of American Jewry” as well as the U.S. Congress.
“Rather than not paying attention to [Yasser] Arafat’s violations of the peace accords, his administration will make it a central theme for achieving a real and durable peace.”
He said the U.S. administration “will move in the direction of understanding [that] the positions of the present government are reasonable, rational and appropriate.”
Netanyahu’s watchword on his visit was “reciprocity” when it came to discussing the Palestinians. His government would honor Israel’s commitments in the self- rule accords to the degree that the Palestinians honored theirs, he said.
He stressed that the Palestinians systematically have failed to comply with the agreements, especially in curbing terrorism and conducting political activity in Jerusalem, and that these failures no longer will be tolerated.
It was left to President Clinton to assuage the alarm Netanyahu’s visit sowed in Arab quarters, perhaps most dramatically reflected in Qatar’s decision to cancel its plans to open a trade office in Israel.
Clinton penned letters to Palestinian Authority President Arafat and other Arab leaders, reassuring them that Washington remains committed to the principles on which the Middle East peace process was founded, including that of land for peace.
When asked to cite the high points of his meeting with Clinton, Netanyahu said they had reached an understanding that decisions affecting Israeli security “must be made by the State of Israel and by no one else” and that “no one will drive a wedge between Israel and the United States.”
Without gleaning new insight into what specific policies Netanyahu would pursue, centrist Jewish organizations strove to put the most positive spin on the visit, while girding for rough spots that may lie ahead.
“It is too early to make firm predictions about what the future will bring, but the new Israeli prime minister appears off to a promising start,” Phil Baum, American Jewish Congress executive director, said in a statement. “Everything now depends on how he implements these policies when he goes back home.”
“Doubtless there will be differences between the United States and Israel, just as has occurred in the past,” Baum said. “One can only hope they will be dealt with in an atmosphere of conciliation and mutual understanding, just as occurred in the past.”
For David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, a key challenge for Netanyahu will be to “ignite” the passion and allegiance of the “broad swath” of centrist American Jewry for the occasional tense moments he is certain will erupt.
Netanyahu made “a very good start” in building this support on the visit, said Harris, due in part to the “package of his youthful vigor and communication skills.” The effort “remains a work in progress,” he added.
Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, said that even after the visit “it is premature to draw conclusions” about where the prime minister is headed in the peace process, but that the Jewish community remains predisposed to support him.
American Jews hope for a “strong close partnership between the Netanyahu government and the administration,” he said. After all, “times of tension on a governmental level are times of discomfort within the Jewish community,” he said.
“Most American Jews thirst for an articulate exponent of Israel and her positions, anxieties and fears,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Netanyahu “speaks American English, knows American values and all this makes American Jews feel proud of him.
“They are with him even if they are not supportive of details of his program, which he hasn’t spelled out yet.”
Still, ideological strains among American Jews that have emerged in recent years surfaced again at some of the prime minister’s appearances before Jewish audiences.
Loud hissing greeted Gary Rubin, the executive director of Americans for Peace Now, when he identified himself before asking a question at a large gathering sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Even louder applause greeted Netanyahu when he responded to Rubin’s question by saying that his challenge was to deal with “the national aspirations of the Jews, not [of] the Palestinians.”
Netanyahu sought to put his opposition to Palestinian statehood into a broader context. He called the concept of “unlimited self-determination” a “fragmentation bomb in the international system” whose realization might lead to the establishment of 200 additional nation-states.
Instead, he said he would tell the Palestinians, “You can run every aspect of your lives,” but Israel will not yield key powers of sovereignty. These powers include the control of borders and the formation of armies, he said. “I’m looking for a solution for them to run their affairs but one that will enable us to stay alive,” Netanyahu said.
“While this is a cogent position,” said one centrist Jewish insider who asked not to be named, “the problem is the genie has left the bottle.” “Having had their expectations whetted, the Palestinians are not prepared to return to status quo ante,” he said.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu may finally have clarified his course on another issue of intense concern to many American Jews — the status of non-Orthodox religious streams in Israel.
In several venues he publicly pledged not to change the religious “status quo,” apparently implying that legal gains made in recent years by the Reform and Conservative movements would be protected.
But at a briefing with Jewish media, he acknowledged that his government’s approach would be a “disappointment to some who would like to see Israel adopt the norms and patterns of the American community.”
To do otherwise would inflame tensions that Israel could not afford, he said, referring to the intense pressures he faces from his Orthodox coalition partners.
At the same time, he used the briefing and other occasions to underscore his commitment to a strong and enduring relationship with Jews in the Diaspora.
And, he said, despite Israel’s vibrant economy and his vigorous pursuit of broad-based investment, Jewish philanthropy to Israeli entities remains “indispensable” in preserving the “network of Jewish identity and solidarity.”