Israel-U.S. relationship faces a return to darker days

A couple of weeks ago, Akiva Eldar, Washington, D.C., correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, was in Connecticut for a speech. He asked me what American Jews thought of the upcoming Israeli elections.

It was the day that my synagogue had buried one of its own: Matthew Eisenfeld, the rabbinical student killed in the first of the four Hamas bombings that shook Israel. Terror and the shaky future of the peace process was on everyone's mind.

My reply was that though there might be more supporters of Labor than Likud here, the vast majority of American Jews would support whoever won. If the Israeli people choose to reject the policies of Shimon Peres, I thought American Jews would back them.

Maybe so, he replied. But then he asked me whether American Jews were really prepared to go to the mat again for an Israeli government that was on the outs with Washington, the way they did in the past. Good question.

Peres may recover from his present troubles, and with the strong support of Bill Clinton, could beat Benjamin Netanyahu and be re-elected May 29.

But with the reaction to the latest terror surge balancing out the wave of sympathy that benefited Labor after Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, the smart money says the election is up for grabs.

If Netanyahu does win, despite his promise to continue the quest for peace, it may put an end to the current "era of good feelings" between Israel and the United States. Faced with an Israeli leader who has said that he won't be holding hands with Yasser Arafat — thus rendering photo ops on the White House lawn out of the question — things could get sticky once America's own election cycle is finished, no matter who is elected U.S. president.

Eldar asked whether I could imagine a re-elected Clinton, still dedicated to the peace process of Rabin and Peres, dealing with a recalcitrant Netanyahu.

Netanyahu might say that if the Oslo Accords, which he has always oppos-ed, have been flouted by Arafat, why should Israel proceed further down that road, no matter what Clinton might want. And if you are unsure about what that would mean, what if Bob Dole is the president dealing with Israel?

The whole problem with these questions is that the majority of Ameri-can Jews were thrill-ed about the new Middle East Peres told them was dawning. That was not only because it would bring peace to the region, but because it would bring an end to those unpleasant confrontations with American presidents, which American Jews usually lost.

The Pat Buchanan scare, which wasn't so much about Israel, though that demagogue's animus for the Jewish state is legendary, brought this dilemma into focus for Jewish activists. Just when everyone thought American Jews were free to concentrate on themselves, keep their money (in Yossi Beilin's memorable phrase) and forget about Israel, the possibility exists that they may have to resume their role as counterweight to American governmental pressure on Israel.

Does this bring back memories of the bad old days of just a few years ago, when an American president "stood up" against the "Israel lobby" to prevent loan guarantees from going to Israel because of U.S. disapproval of the Israeli government's settlement policies?

They were days when Secretary of State James "bleep the Jews" Baker announced to the world that the Israelis knew his phone number, and they could call if they wanted to play ball and go along with what the Bush administration considered to be in Israel's interest.

I bring up that particular moment of tension because Baker recently revealed that the person who gave him the idea to rag on the Israelis in public that way was none other than New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman.

Friedman, who now and then picks up tidy checks from Jewish organizations for giving pithy speeches filled with wisecracks, was then serving as the Times' State Department correspondent. But he was also Baker's unofficial sounding board even as he led the cheers in the newspaper for Baker's Israel-bashing.

The fury of influential Jews like Friedman — and many who share his politics in the Jewish organizational world — at a Netanyahu prime ministership would be something to behold. And we can expect that they will pull out all the stops to help Washington put the squeeze on a Likud government if it should run afoul of the plans of Baker's successors.

Personally, I think Netanyahu, who is wise to the ways of American politics, would have less trouble with either Clinton or Dole than with many American Jews.

The schism among American pro-Israel activists — which began in the time of the Likud governments when the left opposed their refusal to surrender land for peace treaties — has grown in the past four years under Labor. Instead of being pressured into concessions by Washington, Israel produced them on its own.

The American Jewish right repaid Labor's potshots at Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir with interest and opposed the peace process with a vigor that surprised many in the major Jewish organizations. It also spilled over into nasty name-calling, which Rabin's murder should have put to an end to but apparently hasn't.

No Israeli government can command automatic unanimous support here anymore, and both Peres and Netanyahu would be wise to remember that.

Many thoughtful American Jews are correctly saying that rallying around Israel won't produce Jewish continuity, and the emphasis on Israel issues and allocating community funds to Israel has declined. That portends a decline in American Jewish activism for Israel, no matter who is in power there or here.

If American Jews are put in the position of supporting a democratically elected Israel against American pressure, I still think most will respond positively to the Israeli position.

It may never happen, but there is a chance that American Jewish devotion to Israel will be tested again in the coming year.