WASHINGTON — After a year of mounting tension between the United States and Israel, one of the world's longest and strongest friendships appears to have crossed a new threshold.
The double-edged dispute--over Israeli intransigence on settlements in the occupied territories and the alleged Israeli sale or transfer of U.S. arms and sensitive technology to other countries--has left the relationship in disarray, according to American officials.
"How many times can you say that relations have never been worse?" lamented a leading U.S. analyst. In turn, Israelis are increasingly concerned about what they see as Israel-bashing in the United States.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis added: "Trying to take the temperature of the situation isn't productive, but relations are certainly very strained and at one of their lowest points."
Compounding the strain is the deep personal animosity between President Bush and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, a dynamic that has contributed to the public airing of differences traditionally confined to diplomatic channels.
"One factor, and a very substantial one, is certainly the lack of understanding and mistrust that have grown between the leaders," said Lewis, now president of the U.S. Peace Institute.
Analysts trace U.S. disaffection with Shamir, leader of the Likud Party, to March, 1990, when Israel balked at Secretary of State James A. Baker III's first attempt to bring Israel and Arab countries to peace talks under a formula known as the Baker Plan.
Baker was so miffed at the Israeli position that, during testimony on Capitol Hill, he gave out the White House telephone number and said Israel should call when it was ready to negotiate.
"After that, Bush did not talk to Shamir until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait," said Marvin Feuerweger of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy. The thaw during Operation Desert Storm turned out to be temporary. "Anyone can see there's a real tension between these men. It's different from the way Bush relates to other leaders," Feuerweger added.
Baker and Bush were further antagonized during the secretary of state's eight trips to the region to set up the current peace effort. Each visit coincided with an Israeli announcement of a new settlement in the territories it has occupied since the 1967 Middle East War. Now that the peace talks are under way, Washington feels even more strongly that to make progress, the Israelis have to show good faith by ending the settlement drive on occupied Arab land.
The pervasiveness and depth of the animosity between the two governments is reflected in leaks that fueled allegations of illegal Israeli arms sales.
"The leaks occurred because there's a perception in the bureaucracy and U.S. defense industry that the relationship is cooler at the top, and therefore things that have been better handled quietly in the past wouldn't bring any penalty if they were brought into the open now," said Lewis.
Relations have been under pressure before. Among the first and most famous confrontations was President Dwight D. Eisenhower's ultimatum to Israel to withdraw from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula during the 1956 war.
And, over the last decade, Washington and Israel were at odds during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the subsequent massacre by Lebanese militiamen of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Beirut, when U.S. naval intelligence analyst Jonathan Jay Pollard pleaded guilty in 1986 to spying for Israel and during Israel's iron-fist response to the Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories, which erupted in 1987.
In the past, however, it was not played out on a personal level, and behind-the-scenes dialogue eventually defused the tension. Israel's strategic importance and its position as the only Mideast democracy were more important considerations.
As a result, no U.S. Administration ever deviated from President Harry S. Truman's pledge in 1948 to "help build . . . a strong, prosperous, free and independent democratic state" in Israel.
The current crisis has coincided with the end of the Cold War, the deployment of Arab armies alongside U.S. troops against an Arab foe during Operation Desert Storm and the opening of the most extensive Mideast peace dialogue in 44 years. All three events have contributed to a reappraisal of U.S. foreign policy and America's allies, including, for the first time, Israel.
U.S. and Israeli analysts do not foresee any serious break in relations. Although the Administration has refused a request for $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees because of the settlements policy, Israel still receives about $10 million per day from the United States, by far the largest aid program in the world.