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News Analysis: Aipac Policy Conference Highlights Turnabout in U.s.-israeli Relations

March 26, 1993
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Relations between Israel and the Clinton administration have gotten off to such a positive start that Jewish organizational leaders were actually voicing concern here this week that pro-Israel activists would relax their guard and not be mobilized for battles looming ahead.

Moments after Secretary of State Warren Christopher gave an effusively pro-Israel speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s policy conference here, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was warning the 2,000 or so delegates that there is “a danger in becoming complacent” about the “challenges in front of us.”

Those challenges include a possible fight over aid to Israel in an atmosphere on Capitol Hill of cost-cutting in foreign affairs.

What a change from last year’s policy conference, when speakers angrily recalled President Bush’s September 1991 remarks about pro-Israel lobbyists, and AIPAC delegates actually booed when Vice President Dan Quayle attempted to explain the administration’s tough stance on loan guarantees requested by Israel.

This year, delegates heard the secretary of state rhapsodizing about Israel being “a very special place” and were reminded of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s remark last week that Israel now has “a friend” in the White House.

While some have suggested that the turn-about in U.S.-Israeli relations is more “atmospheric” than substantive, there is no doubt that this administration feels very differently about the Jewish state than its predecessor.

U.S.-Israeli relations “have not been this good for a long time,” a senior official at the Israeli Embassy here said this week. “There is an openness to things Israeli.”

There are a number of explanations for the change of climate.

First, this administration clearly has a deep appreciation for the American Jewish community’s strong support for Bill Clinton at the voting booth last November — upwards of 80 percent, by most counts.

The fact that the Jewish community’s mass defection from the Republican Party was motivated largely by Bush’s tough policy toward Israel is not lost on the Clinton people.


Second, top administration officials appear to have a more pro-Israel predisposition than their predecessors — their concern for Israel is deeply felt, “in their kishkes,” so to speak.

While James Baker 3rd was perceived as a stereotypical patrician WASP who could summon little emotional sympathy for Israel, Christopher is already being viewed as a secretary of state in the mold of George Shultz — the kind of guy who may look funny standing with a yarmulka at Yad Vashem but emerges from the Holocaust memorial “choked up,” as he admitted this week.

But the appreciation of Israel goes deeper than the superficial emotional level. Christopher told the AIPAC delegates that one reason the Clinton administration is committed to strengthening U.S.-Israeli relations is the recognition that the two countries have so much in common.

“Shared values give our relationship a special character that has linked us over the years,” he said.

Perhaps the most significant reason that the new administration gets along with the current Israeli government is that the two countries’ policies are in sync — they see eye to eye on many issues, including a basic approach to the Middle East peace process.

That may have more to do with the change in Israeli governments last summer than the change in American ones this winter. There is no doubt that this administration, like its predecessor, feels more comfortable with the policies of Yitzhak Rabin than with those of Yitzhak Shamir.

While the Bush administration was always suspicious about the Likud’s level of commitment to the peace process, the Clinton administration trusts the Israeli Labor government’s seriousness about reaching a settlement with the Arabs.

In his AIPAC speech Tuesday, Christopher said he believed on the basis of his meetings with Rabin here and in Jerusalem that the Israeli prime minister is “prepared to make the hard choices that are needed to see this process through.”

A State Department official directly involved in the peace process said this week that the administration was “very satisfied” with what it had heard during Rabin’s visit last week.

“We had very good discussions across the board,” the official said, indicating that Rabin had floated a number of “creative ideas.”


There also seems to be a real appreciation of Israel’s security concerns. Christopher told the AIPAC delegates that his visit to Israel, which included a helicopter tour of the Golan Heights, “impressed upon me the narrow margin of security on which Israel exists.”

To be sure, the administration does not approve of some of the security measures that Israel takes in the administered territories, including its expulsion of 415 Moslem fundamentalists in December.

On the other hand, there seems to be a recognition on the part of the United States that Israel cannot let repeated attacks on its citizens go unanswered.

As the State Department official put it this week, while the administration is “very sympathetic” to Palestinian human rights concerns, it is “equally sympathetic to the security concerns that Israel faces.”

Finally, the Clinton administration appears to share at least some of Israel’s impatience with the Palestinian delegates to the peace talks. The State Department official at one point referred to “continued Palestinian harping” about certain issues.

Asked what the administration could do to persuade the Palestinians to return to the talks, the official said, “We’ve tried very hard to help” the Palestinians feel comfortable about coming back to Washington on April 20.

The official said there is little point in pressing Israel to make further concessions on such issues as the return of the Palestinian deportees without a guarantee the Palestinians are going to come back to the peace table.

And then, in a remark seldom heard in Washington in the last few years, the official added: “We’ve asked a great deal of Israel” already, and “we’re satisfied Israel has done what we’ve asked.”

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