WASHINGTON — The Bush Administration has muted its criticism of Israel's policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to avoid playing into the hands of right-wing extremists in Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's own Likud Party, well-informed sources said Saturday.
Shamir faces a showdown at a party convention, scheduled July 5, over his proposal for Palestinian elections in the occupied territories. Ultranationalist critics, led by former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, oppose the plan, which they say will ultimately lead to creation of an independent Palestinian state.
U.S. officials believe that Shamir, a canny politician who has vanquished the Sharon forces in a series of party fights, can weather the storm, the sources said. But they said Washington wants to do nothing that would make it more difficult for him to prevail.
"I'm sure you won't see the American government breaking Mr. Shamir's arm to move farther forward on the election proposal than his political process will allow," a senior State Department official said last week.
That is a sharp reversal in the U.S. approach in just over a month. On May 22, Secretary of State James A. Baker III, in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, criticized Shamir's government and called on it to renounce hopes for annexation of the West Bank and Gaza and give up "the unrealistic vision of a Greater Israel." The term "Greater Israel" refers to the boundaries of Israel in biblical times, which included the modern state, all of Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and parts of southern Lebanon.
Although the United States has long called for Israel to relinquish at least parts of the occupied lands in a "territory for peace" compromise with its Arab neighbors, Baker's vivid language, coupled with his decision to deliver the message to the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States, produced a dramatic impact in Israel. Shamir called Baker's speech "useless," and Sharon and his allies seized on it as proof that Washington is a fickle friend that is trying to push Israel into a dangerous election scheme.
Levine Tells Concern
When California Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) expressed concern during a House committee hearing last week that Baker's criticism "might embolden the very hard right in Israel," the secretary of state was carefully bland in his reply.
"From the very first day that Prime Minister Shamir came here, we've been very active in our diplomacy with European countries, the Soviet Union, Arab states . . . to try and do what we can to facilitate a negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians," Baker said.
Levine, one of Israel's closest allies in Congress, termed Baker's comments "a welcome response."
Shamir unveiled his election proposal during a visit to Washington earlier this year. Shamir's critics on the Israeli right accuse him of devising the election plan just to appease the United States.
Under the Shamir proposal, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would be allowed to elect representatives to negotiate with Israel over conditions for a limited form of self-rule. The plan specifically rules out the creation of a Palestinian state.
Although there are some differences in detail, the Shamir proposal parallels the Palestinian autonomy plan included in the 1978 Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt. Shamir, then a member of Parliament but not yet in the Cabinet, voted against the Camp David accords because he said they conceded too much.
Despite the claim by Israeli hard-liners that Shamir's plan is the first step in a process that ultimately would produce a Palestinian state, the Palestine Liberation Organization and all prominent residents of the West Bank and Gaza so far have rejected the proposal because they say it will not give them a right of self-determination.