WASHINGTON — Some call it the Teflon country, but Israel, like the U.S. President associated with the term, finds the going sticky these days.
First came the Iran arms scandal. Although the Tower Commission went to great lengths to differentiate between Israeli involvement and ultimate American responsibility for decision-making, the impression lingers that Israelis pushed and prodded the Reagan Administration into disaster. As Vice President George Bush was quoted saying to the commission, "We were in the grips of the Israelis." Even an Administration official considerably more sympathetic to Israel than Bush, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, expressed concern about Israel promoting interests not coincidental with the United States.
But Israelis and their American supporters take comfort in the knowledge that future congressional investigations are safely in the hands of supporters like Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Lee H. Hamilton Jr. (D-Ind.). Moreover, they reason that the Democrat-controlled Congress has little incentive to deflect criticism from a Republican Administration onto Israel.
But now the Israelis find themselves on the receiving end of some of the harshest criticism in recent years from those very same congressional friends--and the issue is not Iran-related. The trouble is the notorious spy case involving Jonathan Jay Pollard. When the former U.S. Navy Department analyst with high-level security clearance was nabbed last year passing classified information to Israel, the Israeli government disclaimed all responsibility, claiming that Pollard's activities were part of a "rogue operation."
Later, after Pollard and his wife were convicted of having spied on the United States, Israeli officials expected to take some more heat. But they were still ready to write off the entire affair as an aberration, or as one key Israeli official put it, "an unpleasant footnote in the history of U.S.-Israeli relations."
Things have not turned out that way. First, the smuggled intelligence data turned out to be extremely sensitive. Second, two Israelis behind this "rogue operation" were promoted rather than punished by the Israeli government.
Most important, Pollard-related events have ignited a growing storm of outrage from Israel's most important backers--Congress and the American Jewish community.
Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) is chairman of a key congressional subcommittee overseeing the $3-billion-a-year aid program to Israel. Obey has threatened to add a provision to this year's grant stipulating that no country caught spying on the U.S. could receive aid. While he will probably not pursue this idea, it did capture the congressional mood. Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), one of Israel's strongest congressional supporters, said, "Questions raised by Israel's handling of the matter can affect members of Congress on a wide range of issues." Levine himself is engaged in a joint effort with potential presidential candidate Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) to make future U.S. arms sales to Arab countries more difficult. Now a number of congressional observers believe the Biden-Levine bill may be an early casualty of the U.S.-Israel tensions.
The first congressional setback for Israel will probably be a new supply of arms to Saudi Arabia and a number of other Arab countries. As one key Senate staffer put it, "My guys don't all of a sudden want to go to the floor to fight for Israel." Then he added, "Everyone wants to lay low on Israel-related issues."
If as one congressman complained, the promotion of Pollard's Israeli handlers "rubbed our noses into it," American Jewish leaders were in an even less enviable position. A group of them visiting Israel last week made their displeasure unmistakably clear and unexpectedly public.
But instead of chastening their Israeli hosts, the American Jewish leaders' remarks only prompted more tough talk from Jerusalem. Said one well-connected official, "It is very wrong for the American Jewish community to go as far as it did. You don't put Israel on trial because a few people have been accused." Other Israelis went even further, accusing American Jews of responding harshly because of their fears of being accused of dual loyalty. The respected Israeli political theorist Shlomo Avinieri told an Israeli newspaper that "American Jews, despite their material success and intellectual achievements, fear they may not be seen by non-Jews as being truly American."