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News Analysis; Jewish Leaders Deeply Troubled by Recent U.s.-israeli Tensions

June 1, 1990
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There is growing concern in the American Jewish community that increasing tension between the United States and Israel could damage the special relationship between the two countries and derail the Middle East peace process.

There is also consensus that as bad as the situation is now, it could get worse.

Nevertheless, there is hope among Jewish leaders that the tensions are temporary and will be ironed out over time.

The U.S.-Israeli relationship is “fundamentally solid,” and will “remain intact” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, maintained.

“The blame is not one-sided,” he said. “Israel has made mistakes, and the United States has made mistakes. Both sides have to put it back on track, and I think both want to.”

The current tension between the United States and Israel can be attributed to several factors:

*Israel’s unwillingness so far to endorse U.S. proposals for advancing the Jewish state’s own peace plan.

*The Bush administration’s impatience with the long time it is taking for Israel to form a government capable of making major decisions on such issues as the peace process.

*Mistrust and poor personal chemistry between President Bush and Yitzhak Shamir, who heads Israel’s caretaker government and is expected to be prime minister again in the new government.

*Bush’s personal feelings of sympathy for Palestinian youths being injured or killed as they engage in anti-Israel violence.


The current tension goes back to March, when Bush said he was against Jewish “settlements” in East Jerusalem. It was the first time East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after the 1967 war, had been mentioned in such a context.

Although Bush tried to soothe Israel by stressing that Jerusalem should not again be divided, many in Jerusalem and Washington blamed his remarks for the collapse of Israel’s unity government.

From the Bush administration’s perspective, the president was merely expressing his longtime opposition to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, of which the United States considers East Jerusalem to be part.

Administration officials said the president felt he had been misled by Shamir when Israel asserted that only I percent of Soviet Jewish immigrants settled in the West Bank, a figure that did not included East Jerusalem.

There is general agreement that the strong criticism of Israel in recent weeks is a result of Bush’s sympathy for the Palestinians he sees nightly on television being shot at by Israeli troops.

“This is a president that watches a great deal of TV news,” said one source in the pro-Israel community. He said Bush reacts emotionally to the pictures he sees from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“There is no Israeli government, no political initiative, nothing to divert people’s attention from the television image of soldiers dealing with stone-throwing children,” observed Martin Indyk, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank that consistently reflects a pro-Israel viewpoint.

Jess Hordes, Washington representative of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, said he believes that the recent tension is a result of the administration’s increased pressure on Israel.

He said the administration has to give more thought to where the current policy is leading. “Israel really needs the sense of confidence to move ahead” in the peace process, he said.

On this point, one Jewish official maintained that it is not important that Bush and Shamir like each other, but that they trust each other.


Hoenlein said that while the Bush administration has been impatient, Israel also has reason to be impatient over some of the administration’s acts in recent weeks. He said there were some people inside and outside the administration who are seeking to exploit the current tension to undermine the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

One such action was the administration’s willingness to discuss an Arab-sponsored resolution in the U.N. Security Council condemning the settlement of Soviet Jews in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Hordes of ADL reported that when he discussed the resolution with senior administration officials, they were “openly impatient” with Israel. He said they probably reflected the views of their bosses.

Many Jewish officials believe that the current tension also partly reflects the personal views of top administration officials. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker are considered to have a less emotional attachment to Israel than did President Reagan and his secretary of state, George Shultz.

Vice President Dan Quayle is considered to be staunchly supportive of Israel. But he is thought to have much less clout over major policy decisions than White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, a longtime supporter of the Arab cause.

But Indyk pointed out that under Reagan, the United States sold AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia, causing one of the most bitter fights between Israel and the United States in history.


He said Reagan also suspended the sale of F-16 fighters to Israel after the start of the war in Lebanon, and the war itself resulted in numerous disputes between the two countries.

Hoenlein expressed confidence that once the current crisis is over, the U.S.-Israeli relationship will return to normal.

He and others stressed that despite the current tension, the strategic cooperation continues between the two countries. Israel will still receive its $3 billion in economic and foreign aid this year, and a $400 million loan guarantee to build housing for Soviet immigrants in Israel is proceeding with little opposition.

Israel receives most of what it needs from the United States, said an official in the pro-Israel community. “If a perfect relationship is 100, then the U.S.-Israeli relationship is now at 75 percent,” he said.

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