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When President Is Lobbyist, U.S.-Israeli Relations Are Transformed : Politics: There was usually no opposition when the Israel lobby worked Congress. But now an exasperated George Bush wants to be heard.

September 29, 1991|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

WASHINGTON — "This is a tragedy," Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy said last week, expressing "shock" and "dismay" at what he called the "Kafkaeqsue situation" in U.S.-Israeli relations.

To the Bush Administration, however, the conflict over U.S. loan guarantees to Israel is not a tragedy. It is a misunderstanding. "People don't really talk to each other or hear each other, because there is no real private honesty," said an Administration analyst.

Actually, the dispute between the United States and Israel is not a tragedy or a misunderstanding. It is a conflict of interest. The conflict is over Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

With the Cold War over, the United States wants to extend its influence in the Arab world and fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. To do that, we need a comprehensive peace agreement. The Administration opposes anything it sees as an obstacle to peace. And it regards the settlements as an obstacle. For the first time, there is an effective counterweight to Israel's influence over Congress: the authority and prestige of the U.S. President.

But there is no reason to assume that the United States is abandoning its security commitment to Israel. What the dispute signifies is a new era of political reality in U.S.-Israeli relations.

Conflicts between the United States and Israel over settlements are not new. President Jimmy Carter wrote in his memoirs, "Whenever we seemed to be having some success with the Arabs, (Israeli Prime Minister Menachem) Begin would proclaim the establishment of another group of settlements, or make other provocative statements." In 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared, "further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel."

Yet Israel believes that settlements in the occupied territories are in its national interest, whether for security or religious or ideological reasons. To Israel, freezing the settlements means giving the Arabs what they want without negotiating anything in return. The U.S. view is that continuing the settlements makes negotiations impossible. The land can never be traded for peace. With Jewish settlers, the land becomes, de facto, Israel.

Every U.S. President is exasperated by Israel. It's part of the job description. In the past, the Israelis always relied on Congress to bail them out. As Defense Minister Moshe Arens once put it, "It doesn't matter who the President is, as long as we have the Senate."

Israel has always had the Senate--and the House of Representatives--for two reasons. First, Israel has one of Washington's most effective lobbying operations. And second, no one has opposed it.

Members of Congress know defying Israel means trouble. Vote against Israel, you get loud protests from a well-organized constituency ready to fund your opponent. Vote to support Israel, you are safe.

Nothing is illegitimate about this. It's how politics works. If you don't speak up for your interests, no one will pay any attention to you. American Jews found that out in the 1930s and 1940s, when they failed to demand U.S. action to save European Jewry from the Holocaust. Supporters of Israel are keeping an eye on politicians and threatening them with retaliation if they vote "wrong."

Once you play by the rules, however, you have to accept the risks. One risk is that the opposition will organize. When that happens, politicians have to figure out which is the safest way to vote--i.e., which side will give them less trouble.

The Israel lobby usually wins because there is usually no one on the other side. That wasn't true in 1981, however, when Congress voted on the AWACS sale--whether to sell advanced radar planes to Saudi Arabia over Israel's objections. Big business lobbied for the sale. So did President Reagan. The Israel lobby lost.

Now, Israel is confronting a popular President who has a strong foreign-policy record--and the ability to mobilize public opinion. Bush issued a veiled threat at his Sept. 12 news conference when he said, "I think the American people will support me" in asking Congress to put off debate on Israel's request for $10 billion in loan guarantees to resettle Soviet immigrants.

The President was right. Subsequent polls showed an overwhelming majority of Americans in favor of postponing the loan guarantee--one poll showed 86%. In fact, majorities also said they opposed giving Israel any loan guarantees at all.

Have the American people suddenly turned against Israel? Not at all. By 57%-20%, respondents to an ABC News poll said they sympathized with Israel over the Arab nations. That is a relatively high level of support compared with the past. Two-thirds opposed cutting aid to Israel. And three-quarters rejected the idea of weakening U.S. ties to Israel.

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