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Israelis Hope Current Flare-Up With Bush Is Not Turning Point


US Secretary of State James Baker III left here Sept. 17 after two rounds of talks with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that failed to defuse the rancorous argument over Israel's request for US loan guarantees.The dispute has shaken Israeli politicians, for whom President Bush's harsh attack on the pro-Israel lobby Sept. 12 came as a splash of cold water. And flaring tempers on both sides have prompted doubts here about the future of relations with Israel's key ally and protector. The general sense - and fervent hope - among politicians, government officials, and observers here is that the current fight marks only a spat, rather than a sea change, in ties with the United States. But fears persist that the affair could still get out of hand. "My feeling is that this is a new dip, and there have been many ups and downs in the past," says Gabriel Sheffer, a Hebrew University professor who specializes in US-Israeli relations. "But if this conflict continues and is exacerbated, there might be a serious turning point in Israel's relations with the White House." Mr. Baker left Jerusalem for Cairo to continue his latest Middle East peace shuttle saying that although "we have not finally resolved this [loan guarantee] issue ... I hope and believe we have made some progress on it, and we will continue to have further discussions." Baker spent Sept. 16 and 17 working with both Israelis and a team of Palestinians on letters of assurance that both sides have asked for from Washington relating to a peace conference. But Baker left Jerusalem acknowledging that a number of issues remain to be resolved before a conference can be convened. Baker also said he had left some ideas with Mr. Shamir about possible compromises over Israel's $10 billion request for loan guarantees to help settle Soviet Jews, which President Bush has asked the Congress to defer for 120 days to avoid complicating the peace process. The direct conflict between Israel and the White House has been a sharp jolt to a tradition whereby "the two countries have always sought to avoid confrontation; there have been implications, hints, and requests," says David Clayman, local director of the American Jewish Congress. "Israel has been lulled for many years [into believing] that there will be no direct confrontation because of the deep ties that bind us together." While Mr. Clayman blames Bush for "breaking the rules, getting into a shouting match," Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek faults Shamir's government. "We were always extremely careful not to quarrel with the president of the US," he said in a Jerusalem Post interview Sept. 17. "This is the first time we have had a direct clash with the president." Although the public recriminations seemed to boil up suddenly, with Bush lambasting pro-Israel lobbyists and one Cabinet minister here calling Bush a "liar" and an "anti-Semite," some observers here see this as the natural outcome of recent developments. "This is not the beginning of a process but the culmination of one going on for some time," argues Mr. Sheffer. For several years, he says, the American Jewish community has not offered solid support for the current Israeli government, and on Capitol Hill, too, he sees "a process of erosion of support for Israel that hinges on Israeli policies," such as accelerated Jewish settlement in the occupied territories. The gravity of the present differences, and their future impact, are still uncertain. For Clayman, "this is truly a rupture and a crisis in US-Israeli relations, and one of the most severe crises that American Jewry has faced." But one government official insists that "this is a localized skirmish, and someone will end up with a black eye, that's all. "There has been no long-term damage done," he argues. "We are still the good guys in American public opinion, even if we are out of line, and the Arabs are still the bad guys." Even so, the official cautions, if Bush continues to lash out, "the spin could get out of control." It is that fear that seems to be motivating current efforts to seek a compromise, as the pro-Israel lobby reconsiders its intention to force the loan guarantee request to a congressional vote now. Such a move, says a representative of a American Jewish organization here, would risk alienating the White House further on the eve of the planned Middle East peace conference, and "would be a very great mistake." "Whatever comes out of this debate should not redefine the parameters of the methods we use to resolve our differences," hopes Bejamin Begin, a Likud member of parliament. "If the Americans allow new parameters, including unfriendly pressure, then we are in a different ballgame." Even if a compromise is found to resolve the current difference of opinion, however, some lasting effects are seen from Bush's decision to take a resolute stand and back it with harsh language. The episode "has reinforced the feeling among politicians here that 'the whole world is against us, you can't trust a gentile, says Sheffer. It has also sparked fears that US public opinion may be shifting to an increasingly unsympathetic attitude toward Israel, led by the powerful influence of the US president. "Bush is saying he will turn the American people against Israel, and the Israeli government didn't give him one good reason not to," says opposition Labor Knesset member Avraham Burg. With the United States bound to be the dominant influence at the upcoming peace conference planned for October, this is an awkward moment for Israel's ties with Washington to sour. And as the prospects for solving the Palestinian question grow less remote, the chances for more collisions between Washington and Israel would seem to grow. "Everyone understands that the moment of truth has not arrived yet," Sheffer says, "but it's approaching."

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