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America From Abroad : Rift Opens Between Israel and U.S. Jews : The new Labor government is accused of switching policy signals without explaining itself to supporters abroad.


JERUSALEM — The deputy foreign minister of Israel was a "little slime ball," declared the vice president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, accusing him of endangering Israel's security in peace talks with the Arabs and then lying about it.

The committee, the deputy foreign minister replied, was a "right-wing Jewish organization," apparently opposed to peace and clearly harboring "extremist" views.

That acrid and unprecedented exchange between Harvey Friedman, since dismissed as an official of the lobbying group, and Yossi Beilin, who remains Israel's deputy foreign minister, exposed a serious rift between the year-old government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the American Jewish community.

The problem, as Israeli officials see it, is the degree to which American Jews accepted the previous Likud-led governments' "not-an-inch" arguments in talks with Israel's Arab neighbors and the uneasiness over the "land-for-peace" compromises put forward by Rabin's Labor Party.

"Most of our people were shocked by the Friedman-Beilin exchange," Stanley A. Ringler, director of the Labor Party's American section, said. "They did not realize how deeply entrenched Likud had become in the U.S. over its 15 years in power, how convincing its arguments were there. . . ."

A Rabin adviser put it this way: "Israelis reassessed everything in our elections last year and voted in a new government to lead them in a new direction. . . . But our American friends kept on the old road. Now, they insist we're going the wrong way and that they have to set us right!"

Liberal American Jewish leaders, however, reproach the autocratic and uncommunicative Rabin for failing to mobilize support in their community for Israel's changed approach to the peace talks.

"American Jews need a clear, coherent, well-defined message," Harry Wall, Israel director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, commented. "This government is moving markers, major markers such as 'no return to 1967 borders' and 'no talking to the Palestine Liberation Organization,' that have been in place a very long time, and it needs to explain why."

Looking ahead, both Israeli officials and American Jewish leaders fear that their divergence could seriously impair the Arab-Israeli peace talks by making the Clinton Administration wary of mediating.

"If peace happens, the Clinton Administration will need to broker it, and brokering it will require an activist approach at the highest levels of U.S. foreign policy," Wall said.

"But the Clinton Administration will appraise that effort carefully," he added. "The upside is a historic opportunity, and Bill Clinton would benefit politically. The downside is that it will require leaning on Israel, and that could mean the same loss of support among American Jews that other mediators suffered.

"The current dissonance could discourage President Clinton from making peace in the Middle East a priority, and that is not what Rabin wants," Wall said.

David Clayman, director of the American Jewish Congress' Jerusalem office, said: "Because this (Rabin) government has not reached out to the American Jewish community to make its case, the Clinton Administration will primarily hear Likud positions from American Jews. If it is then labeled anti-Israel and anti-Semitic by them, it will back away fast from the peace process. . . ."

The rift between his government and the American Jewish community began almost as soon as Rabin took office. It stemmed not only from divergent views on peace and how to achieve it, but also on sharply different perceptions of the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.

Meeting with leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last August, Rabin told them that the Israeli government would now deal directly with the White House and that American Jews should confine their political activities to lobbying congressmen.

Two months later, Finance Minister Abraham Shohat told delegates to an Israel Bonds conference here to scale back their activities--Israel could borrow money more cheaply itself. At the same time, Rabin rebuffed efforts by American fund-raisers to tighten controls on how U.S. donations are managed.

In a reorganization of the Israeli Foreign Ministry last spring, its influential hasbara (propaganda) division, which had argued Israel's case abroad, was downgraded into an "information and communications" department with the explanation that "If you have a good policy, you don't need hasbara, and if you have a bad policy, hasbara won't help."

"None of it was meant the way it sounded, but the impression was left, 'Who needs you?' " Clayman said. "The three basic functions the American Jewish community had in its relationship with Israel were, after all, lobbying, fund-raising and hasbara. "

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