Reprimand of ambassador by Baker signals friction between Israel, U.S. WAR IN THE GULF

February 17, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

JERUSALEM -- The renewed romance between Israel and the United States has suffered its first public tiff.

An embarrassing reprimand of the Israeli ambassador to Washington has left Israel wondering about the value of the good will it has accumulated and left both sides feeling unappreciated by the other.

President Bush expressed this displeasure in a sharp note to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The White House complained that public criticisms by the Israeli ambassador were "outrageous."

The controversy, which centers on foreign aid, has revealed that each country views its role in the Gulf War in significantly different light.

Israel feels it is making a considerable sacrifice for the United States by being passive. Some here wonder if Washington will pay only lip service to granting political or financial compensation.

Washington has indicated it feels the United States is making sacrifices for the benefit of Israel in conducting the war and that further requests by Jerusalem are ill-timed and ungrateful.

Those opposite perceptions apparently fueled the flap last week between the Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval and U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

Mr. Shoval, normally restrained and diplomatic, had harsh criticism in an interview Thursday about delays in getting a $400 million housing loan guarantee the United States had promised for four months.

Mr. Baker reacted sharply. He summoned Mr. Shoval to his office for what an aide described as a reprimand. Mr. Shoval later acknowledged that Mr. Baker "was upset."

The meeting was followed Friday by Mr. Bush's note to Mr. Shamir and the White House statement that the ambassador's remarks were "outside the bounds of acceptable behavior for the ambassador of any friendly country." The statement noted: "We deserve better."

The different prisms being used by Israel and the United States may complicate their cooperation during this war.

"Israelis are beginning to wonder: How much are the points that Israel is collecting worth?" said Gerald Steinberg, a strategic analyst at the Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv.

Israel's decision not to strike back at Iraq for its rocket attacks has won public support here, partly because Israelis have concluded that the political and economic benefits of restraint .. outweigh those of retaliation.

But the United States continues to indicate it will press Israel for a solution to the Palestinian issue after the war ends.

The United States sees requests for financial aid at a time Americans are dying in the war to be unseemly. But Israel feels it has suffered for the benefit of the war effort. It has absorbed missile attacks that have killed four people, injured more than 300, and damaged many homes.

Many citizens feel the Israeli military could do a quicker job of stopping the Iraqi launches. They worry that Israel may lose its deterrent threat if Arab enemies see that it does not always retaliate.

"I don't think the policy-makers in Washington have an understanding of the depth of feeling here," said Harry Wall, who runs the Jerusalem office of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. "Israelis feel they are not only being restrained by the United States, but they are not being recognized for it."

By all indications, that attitude rankles Mr. Baker and, undoubtedly, other U.S. officials.

In testimony Feb. 6 before a congressional committee, Mr. Baker said the United States has "responded very generously" with a huge and hurried airlift of Patriot anti-missile batteries to Israel, manned in part by U.S. crews.

When the Israeli minister of defense visited him last week, Mr. Baker was widely reported to have reacted coolly to any discussion of financial aid above the annual $3 billion Israel already receives -- the most of any country.

He pointedly reminded Mr. Arens that U.S. servicemen are risking their lives to destroy Israel's strongest enemy, according to reports in the Israeli press.

The comment pricked at a particularly sensitive Israeli contention: that Americans are not fighting for Israel, which would run afoul of the Jewish state's cherished self-reliance, but rather are fighting only for

U.S. interests.

"We are obediently absorbing Iraqi missiles night after night," commentator Yoel Marcus of the respected Ha'aretz newspaper said in a published message to Mr. Baker. "You are withholding from us the right to protect ourselves so that Arab dictators whom you are saving will not, God forbid, be offended. We are a victim of a war that is not ours."

That a $400 million housing loan guarantee would provoke this dispute is not unprecedented. This particular economic aid already has caused conflict and has taken on symbolic and political importance far beyond its cost.

The guarantees, mainly to help settle Soviet Jews, were approved in October. Israel had requested the help of the United States, which long had criticized the Soviets for its restrictions pTC on emigration, but then placed limits of its own when the Soviet Union opened its doors.

But the United States has withheld final approval to get assurances the aid would not be used to build housing for Soviet immigrants in the occupied West Bank. Mr. Baker told Congress this month that the aid would be forthcoming as soon as Israel provides an accounting of where it would be spent.

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