News Analysis: Al Gores jubilee trip to Israel boosts his standing among Jews

JERUSALEM — By the time Air Force Two left Ben-Gurion Airport for the second and final time over the weekend, Vice President Al Gore had done much more than celebrate Israel's 50th anniversary.

He made his biggest foray into the diplomatic quagmire of the Middle East.

Hoping to capitalize on Gore's sympathetic ear, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had tried, in vain by all accounts, to persuade Gore that U.S. ideas for advancing the peace process would endanger Israel's security.

For his part, Gore, hoping to capitalize on his relationship with Netanyahu, told the Israeli leader in more than seven hours of talks that the time had come to think about the current impasse in different terms.

Gore prevailed on both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Arafat to take advantage of present opportunities because new ones may not arise.

The vice president's first public solo venture into the Israeli-Palestinian impasse could pose risks for his unofficial presidential campaign for the year 2000 if the process disintegrates.

On the other hand, in the event of an unlikely breakthrough, Gore, who used his Israel trip in part to reach out to the American Jewish electorate, would likely receive some of the credit.

Regardless of the developments in the peace process, Gore's trip, if his reception in Israel is any indication, has likely boosted his standing among many in the Jewish community.

Gore, who stressed time and time again that he had not come to Israel to negotiate, spent much of his time expressing extraordinary solidarity — even for a seasoned politician — to the people of Israel and Jews in general.

He sought to capitalize on some of the good will he fostered while in Israel and requested a last-minute meeting with Netanyahu, after a post-midnight session with Arafat, to explain what he had heard from Arab leaders.

Gore left Israel on Friday of last week for Saudi Arabia and returned Saturday night to travel to the Palestinian self-rule areas. He then went on to Cairo before returning to Washington early Monday.

Although it was planned well before officials scheduled this week's London peace talks, Gore's visit to Israel evolved from a ceremonial role at Israel's jubilee celebrations to include a heavy dose of peace talks.

According to a senior Israeli official, Netanyahu in part used the meetings to feel out Gore's unity with Clinton and Albright, who are pushing the U.S. plan, which reportedly involves an additional 13.1 percent redeployment from the West Bank.

The Israeli premier found Gore in sync with the administration he represents, the official said.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu used the sessions to reach out to Gore. Israeli reports said Netanyahu, for the first time, committed himself to a larger redeployment than the 9 percent he had reportedly been willing to undertake.

The trip came as many American Jews continue to wait and see how the U.S. peace initiative ends.

Most of the organized Jewish community has supported the push by American officials to convince Israel to withdraw from more of the West Bank.

Jewish officials have said that support would disappear if the United States put forward its own public plan including specific percentages for redeployment.

According to a senior U.S. official stationed in Israel, the American team will publish its plan if Netanyahu and Arafat fail to reach an agreement.

The official believes that despite what Jewish organizations have said, in the end most will blame Netanyahu for not accepting a plan that the official said favors Israel's interests.

In any case, such a scenario suggests that the United States and Israel could be headed for an ugly public confrontation.

The question is whether Gore, in the aftermath of his jubilee visit, will be isolated from some of the American Jewish criticism that could accompany a public confrontation.

During his three-day visit, Americans and Israelis saw Gore the statesman laying a wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and meeting with top officials. They also saw Gore the mourner placing a stone on the grave of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; Gore the techno-environmentalist observing a solar power array at the Weizmann Institute of Science; Gore the campaigner speaking to some 400 United Jewish Appeal activists and meeting with a small group of big donors.

He balanced the promise to continue America's "ironclad commitment" to Israel's security while calling for "maximum effort" by all sides for peace.

"There is no distinction between our continued commitment to Israel's security and well-being on the one hand, and our commitment to helping Israel achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting peace between Israelis and Arabs on the other," Gore said at a televised news conference with Netanyahu.

How the United States navigates these commitments will speak volumes about whether Democrats can continue to sell the Clinton administration as the most pro-Israel in the history of the modern state.

A skilled politician, Gore dazzled listeners everywhere. Apologizing in Hebrew for not speaking the language, Gore drew the warmest reception of all speakers at the state's major jubilee celebration, where he delivered a heavily theological speech about the Jewish dream that aides said he wrote himself.

Enthusiasm for Gore was evident at virtually all stops, including a visit by his wife, Tipper, to the Western Wall, where an American woman waded through the crowd to tell her, "Your husband gave a great speech last night." Gore's enthusiasm also came across in a meeting with UJA leaders and a toast at a luncheon hosted by Netanyahu with many visiting American Jewish activists as guests.

"The generosity" that American Jews have shown "in honoring their heritage and the love of Israel is matched by the tremendous leadership that they have shown in communities throughout America."

The toast led one Jewish political activist to joke that Gore is hoping to capitalize on this generosity for his campaign coffers as he seeks the presidency in 2000.