News Analysis: Clinton Pressure on Israel Draws Muted Jewish Response
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News Analysis: Clinton Pressure on Israel Draws Muted Jewish Response

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently had had enough of the crescendo of American criticisms.

In uncharacteristically blunt and equally undiplomatic language, Netanyahu lambasted President Clinton for engaging in “unbecoming” conduct for not scheduling a meeting with him.

“The entire Jewish state feels humiliated if such action is directed against us,” he said in a CNN interview last week.

But as Netanyahu broke his silence to lash out at Clinton, the American Jewish community continues to meet the chilled U.S.-Israel relations with comparative silence.

The muted Jewish response can be explained as much by what is seen as the president’s positive record on Israel as it can by a growing dissatisfaction in the American Jewish community over the stalled peace process.

Except for some criticism of Clinton for blaming Israel for the United States’ inability to hold the Gulf War coalition together in the latest crisis with Iraq, Jewish groups for the most part have adopted a wait-and-see attitude and are giving Clinton room to work.

Clinton is clearly counting on his reservoir of good will in the Jewish community as he pursues an aggressive effort to prod the Israeli government to take a bold step in negotiations with the Palestinians.

“The administration is testing the waters on pressure,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

In addition to withholding a meeting with Netanyahu until there is progress in the peace talks, Clinton administration officials have threatened to go public by the end of December with their differences with Israeli policy unless progress is made.

State Department officials said the United States would publicly call on Israel to cede West Bank territory to create a “viable Palestinian entity” and to halt all settlement construction.

Amid such efforts, Jewish organizations are clearly pre-occupied with how to respond.

A conference call among Jewish groups last week was followed Monday night by a two-hour night meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The discussion included a plea from Dore Gold, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, who called on the conference to express solidarity with the Israeli government.

But the umbrella group, which is seen as the organized Jewish community’s main liaison with the administration, decided to send a letter to Clinton that would not explicitly criticize the president’s pressure on Israel.

While some right-of-center groups like the Zionist Organization of America and the Orthodox Union urged the Conference of Presidents to speak out against Clinton’s shift in strategy, many participants in the Monday meeting said a consensus emerged that Clinton has not crossed “the line.”

A conference leader told the group that knowing when pressure has become too much is like the judicial argument of defining pornography — “We’ll know it when we see it,” a source said.

The letter to Clinton, whose wording sparked debate among conference members and was expected to be finalized later this week, was likely to call for strong U.S.-Israel relations and reciprocity in the Israeli and Palestinian commitments to the peace process.

Some Jewish officials said the decision not to directly criticize the president was due in part to Clinton’s record on Israel during his past five years in office.

“There remains a pretty strong faith in this administration, but faith does not mean blind support,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

“The starting point is different than the Bush-Baker years,” when the Jewish community was quick to attack the White House, Harris said, referring to the Jewish community’s strong reaction to the Bush administration’s policies toward Israel.

At that time, Bush, angered by the Israelis’ settlement policies, delayed loan guarantees to the Jewish state.

Most believe that Clinton, regardless of policy differences with Israel, would not withhold economic, military or intelligence support — moves certain to draw the wrath of most Jewish organizations.

Many Jewish officials who support the Oslo peace process said privately that Netanyahu’s failure to move the peace process forward has led to an erosion of support for him.

In fact, some said they support Clinton’s efforts to push Netanyahu.

Reform Jewish leaders tried to paint the Jewish community’s response as an outgrowth of the battle over religious pluralism in Israel.

The decision to give Clinton some leeway is “an example of the lack of confidence that much of American Jewry and its establishment has with this prime minister and his government’s policies,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

But opponents of the Oslo peace process argue that the Clinton administration should be strongly criticized.

“We would be derelict in our duty if we do not condemn Clinton,” said Morton Klein, president of the ZOA.

Klein blamed the decision to withhold criticism on “the fact that much of the leadership is not acutely aware of [Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser] Arafat’s behavior and the great dangers facing Israel.”

In addition, Klein said, “Because the vast majority of the Jewish community is Democratic, they are much more reluctant to confront a Democratic president.”

Klein found an unusual ally when the usually left-leaning American Jewish Congress called Clinton’s unilateral pressure on Netanyahu “bad tactics and bad strategy.”

“It may well be that Israel’s response to the peace process has been inadequate,” the AJCongress said in a statement last week, but “there has to be more to U.S. diplomacy than mere insistence that Israel yield territory and stop settlements.”

B’nai B’rith planned to send its own letter expressing disappointment over Clinton’s “undue pressure” on Israel.

For its part, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, believes that “the pressure school is counterproductive.”

The administration “may be losing sight that there cannot be real progress in the peace process without close relations with Israel,” said an AIPAC official.

“Having said that, we do not believe that we are in a deep crisis” the AIPAC official said, and it would be wrong to “overstate the chasm.”

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