Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Focus on Issues Two on a Seesaw

February 25, 1983
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The replacement of Ariel Sharon as Defense Minister by Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Moshe Arens, may not lessen the problems between the U.S. and Israel but it is expected to improve the atmosphere in which they are addressed. At least that appears to be the prevailing attitude in Washington.

Personalities do play a part in intergovernmental relations as they do in domestic politics, and it is no secret that Sharon was the most unpopular Israeli official in Washington. Even critics of Premier Menachem Begin viewed him as a moderate when compared to his Defense Minister.

It is perhaps a coincidence, but the two Defense Ministers — Sharon of Israel and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger — seemed to be the official in each country who has done the most to exacerbate relations between the U.S. and Israel during the first two years of the Reagan Administration.


Arens did get along with Weinberger, as he has with most members of the Reagan Administration since coming to Washington a year ago.

In what may have been symbolic of the new atmosphere, Arens met with Weinberger at the Pentagon February 13 just hours after the Israeli Cabinet announced his appointment as Defense Minister, And when the Israeli envoy’s name was mentioned last Sunday during a television interview with Secretary of State George Shultz, Shultz volunteered that Arens was an “outstanding man.”

Yet the 57-year-old-plain-speaking aeronautical engineer is considered as much a “hardliner” as anyone in the Begin government. After all, Arens was Begin’s first choice for Defense Minister when Ezer Weizman resigned two years ago but turned down the offer because he opposed the peace treaty with Egypt.

But since leaving the powerful post of chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to come to Washington in February, 1982, Arens has been an effective spokesman for the Israel view not only to the Reagan Administration, but to the American public, particularly in his numerous television appearances.

In recent months he has made Israel’s arguments for the two issues that now divide Jerusalem and Washington; Lebanon and Israel’s rejection of President Reagan’s September I peace initiative.


Differences over these two issues, especially Lebanon, have brought U.S.-Israeli relations to a new low in recent weeks. The Administration has argued that there must be a withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon as soon as possible in order to allow the new Lebanese government to obtain sovereignty over all its territory.

In the television interview Sunday, Shultz denied that U.S. policy was aimed at a “speedy withdrawal of Israeli forces,” stressing that it sought the “speedy withdrawal of all forces in a manner that’s consistent with the security needs of Israel.”

But he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week he believes that once an agreement is worked out for Israel’s departure, the Syrians will agree to leave and the Palestine Liberation Organization forces will follow the Syrians.

But Israel denies there is any urgency and stresses that it wants to be assured that once its army leaves it will not have to return again because Palestinian terrorists are back shelling northern Israel. If the PLO were to return to south Lebanon that “would be the end of Lebanon and that would be the end of any hope for stability in the area,” Arens warned recently.

Shultz told the House Committee last week that the U.S. considers the Israeli security concerns “quite legitimate” and “worth the care and effort” being given them. But President Reagan has been urging a speedy Israeli withdrawal in his meetings with Jewish leaders and with various news people from around the country. At one such meeting, Reagan called Israel an “occupying power” and accused it of “unnecessarily delaying” its withdrawal from Lebanon.


On the negotiating issues itself, the Administration opposed Israel’s demands for permanent security outposts in southern Lebanon. Shultz called it “hardly consistent with the idea of sovereignty for Lebanon.” The Administration has also opposed Israel’s efforts to work out some sort of normalization of relations with Lebanon, which many observers see as an effort to appease Saudi Arabia.

But the Administration’s urgency on Lebanon is above all an effort to save the Reagan peace initiative. Persons with such diverse views on the Middle East as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Chancellor Bruno Kreisky of Austria have urged that the issues not be made conditional on each other. The Administration has denied there is any link. “The fundamental priority has to be the basic peace process,” Shultz said last week.


But for the Reagan initiative to succeed. King Hussein of Jordan must enter the autonomy talks. The Administration has made it clear that it believes that Jordan will not do so until the Israelis agree to leave Lebanon.

Julius Berman, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, reported after a recent Oval Office meeting between Reagan and a small group of Jewish leaders that the President indicated that Hussein would enter the negotiations as soon as an agreement for an Israeli withdrawal is achieved.

But longtime observers of Hussein note that the king has always found some excuse for not being able to negotiate. Lebanon aside, Hussein does not seem to be getting the approval of the PLO that he claims he needs to enter the talks.

Yet there is fear among Israel’s friends that the Administration, wittingly or not, is setting up an excuse for Hussein not to join the talks, an excuse on which the blame will fall on Israel.

“The pattern for peacemaking in the Middle East has been set … direct face-to-face talks without any preconditions,” Arens recently said on television. “And that is the pattern that King Hussein must follow. He might find it difficult; he may not be enthusiastic; he may feel no incentive to do it, but that’s what it takes to arrive at peace in the Middle East.”


Rather than accept that pattern, many in Washington would rather blame Israel. Berman has reported that Jewish leaders in recent meetings with Reagan and Shultz have stressed that Israel is being made to appear

As Leon Dulzin chairman of the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency Executives, recently pointed out here, there is greater commitment by the Administration to the Reagan initiative than there was to the Rogers plan by the Nixon Administration because it bears the name of the President not the Secretary of State.

Recommended from JTA