Israel's restraint in gulf war revives support . . . as Bush administration prepares to broker elusive Arab-Israeli peace

March 10, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The other day, House members blew Israel a $650 million kiss -- a sign of gratitude after the Jewish state heeded U.S. pressure and refrained from retaliating against Iraqi Scud missile attacks during the 42-day Persian Gulf war.

The money, tucked in a larger bill to pay $42.6 billion of U.S. war costs, is supposed to help Jerusalem pay the expense of mobilizing after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

But the symbolism of Thursday's action, as lawmakers voted 397-24 to preserve aid in the bill, underscores an evolving political reality likely to prove more valuable to Israel than any subsidy check from Washington -- particularly in the coming months as the Bush administration steps up efforts to broker peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

"Their stock around here is up, way up from where it was a few months ago," said Representative Larry Smith, D-Fla. "I think there's going to be more inclination to listen to her concerns and take them very seriously."

In his Wednesday address to Congress, President Bush called on Israel to surrender occupied Arab lands in exchange for a regional peace. "By now, it should be plain to all parties that peacemaking in the Middle East requires compromise," he said.

But Israel has refused to forfeit any of the territories it has captured. Israel's supporters say that a pre-eminent lesson of the past few months is that it needs the buffer zones that the territories provide -- whether to ward off a ground assault or to provide a few additional seconds' warning of a Scud attack. Recent events have left lawmakers newly sensitive to those arguments.

"I think perhaps there will be greater sensitivity to some points the Israelis might make about strategic depth," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind. "At the very least, we'll be looking for some serious intent from Arab countries before Israel's asked to make sacrifices."

All things being relative, Israel's political stock in Washington was never that low. Israel's status as the No. 1 recipient of U.S. aid has not been in danger. Few lawmakers have ever spoken openly and critically of Israel -- partly out of loyalty to an ally, partly out of fear of political reprisals from the pro-Israel lobby, which has built a reputation as one of the most effective and, on occasion, vengeful political blocs.

In recent years, however, lawmakers and longtime political observers had noted a deepening, if largely clandestine, resentment toward the country. Those feelings, they said, sprang largely from the increasingly violent standoff between Israel and Palestinians, and from Israeli government policies encouraging Jewish settlement in its occupied lands.

"You wouldn't see it in votes so much, and people would still co-sponsor pro-Israel legislation -- if you put in their faces," said one legislative staff aide. "But you'd see it expressed as a kind of dampened enthusiasm -- they wouldn't sign petitions -- or just a kind of passive-aggressive stance; they wouldn't speak out in defense of Israel when it was under attack."

Ironically, those tensions were also related to the very success with which the pro-Israeli lobby swayed Congress toward its agenda. Like many other special interest organizations, pro-Israel groups contributed campaign funds to lawmakers who supported their cause -- or withheld them from those who didn't.

Nevertheless, entities like the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee seemed to wield special clout -- rivaled only, perhaps, by the anti-gun control National Rifle Association. The defeat of some incumbent lawmakers by opponents who enjoyed AIPAC's support added an edge to the antagonism some felt toward Israel.

In 1984, for example, then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Charles Percy, R-Ill., was defeated by Democrat Paul Simon, in part with backing of pro-Israel interests outraged by Mr. Percy's support for the sale of advanced AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia.

Congressional support for Israel may have reached its nadir last year, after Israel's rightist-led coalition government covertly sponsored a Jewish settlement in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem.

Secretary of State James A. Baker III sarcastically said Israel should phone him when it was "serious" about attempting peace -- then gave the State Department's telephone number. And in one of the few explicit public outbursts against Israel and its supporters, Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., decried the Israeli lobby as "selfish" and criticized a recently adopted Senate resolution endorsing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Today, Mr. Dole calls Israel a "good ally" for its restraint during the war against Iraq. This week, Mr. Baker will make his first visit to Israel as Secretary of State. And the once-simmering resentment toward Israel appears to have ebbed.

"It's like a fight in the family: We have differences, we quarrel, we make up," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. "Ultimately I think we come back to the fact that, as Golda Mier once said, Israel is the one place in the Middle East where the U.S. will always be able to land its planes."

But as one State Department official noted, it is a separate question whether the United States will continue to want to do so.

"They certainly weren't a strategic ally during the past six months -- at best, they weren't a factor, and that's only after strenuous efforts on our part to keep them out of the war," the official said. "A strategic ally is a country whose behavior and policies comport with our strategic interests. By that definition, Israel ought to be on notice that it might not always be considered the best of strategic allies."

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