U.S. and Israel at Odds

September 07, 1991

The United States and Israel suddenly find themselves in a poisonous dispute that must be ironed out at the highest level -- and soon. Immediately at issue is the U.S. decision to seek a delay on an Israeli request for $10 billion in loan guarantees to house Soviet emigres. Washington's fear is that Arab countries would interpret such guarantees as a green light for further Jewish settlements on the West Bank and use this as an excuse to scuttle a Middle East peace conference.

So there is "linkage," however much the administration might try to gloss it over. Americans should be very clear on two points. One is that this country, after years of pressuring the old Soviet Union to let its Jewish people go, now has a moral obligation to help defray the enormous financial burden of resettling them in Israel. Another is that the $10 billion in question is not a direct aid outlay, but merely a guarantee for low-interest loans.

Nevertheless, Israel would be most unwise to try to defeat Mr. Bush on this issue. Even if Congress were to override his veto by mandating immediate loan guarantees, the administration could easily tie up the money in the labyrinth of the executive branch. It would not be the first time. More important, Israel would risk alienating a president who might well occupy the Oval Office for another five-plus years -- a president with lofty prestige in the Middle East after his triumph in the gulf war.

Thus Israel loses if it wins, just as the Bush administration risks an Israeli boycott of the peace conference if it triumphs on Capitol Hill.

Let us take a leaf from John F. Kennedy in suggesting a way out of this mutually self-destructive confrontation. At the height of the Cuba missile crisis, JFK received two letters from Nikita S. Khrushchev -- the first fairly reasonable, the second blustery and belligerent. The president chose to ignore the second letter and welcomed what he interpreted as the Soviet leader's "desire to seek a prompt solution" in the first. The crisis evaporated.

By the same token, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir should seize upon Mr. Bush's assertion that he was asking Congress to defer action "just for 120 days" as an earnest, good-faith U.S. pledge to help Soviet emigres four months hence regardless of Israeli settlement policy on the West Bank or developments at the peace conference. In similar fashion, Mr. Bush could ignore harsh Israeli rhetoric and seize upon Mr. Shamir's assertion that he was prepared to discuss the matter further with Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

Tempers must be cooled so efforts to arrange a peace conference can proceed. At last there is a chance for direct talks between Israel and its neighbors and an opportunity to defuse Middle East tensions. This prospect should not be endangered by gratuitous fights between friends.

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