THE ISRAELI government and the Israeli lobby in the United States have apparently decided to plunge Americans into a Mideast policy debate that the Bush administration and most members of Congress would have preferred to avoid.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has reportedly asked rabbis to use this week's High Holy Days to urge pressure on Congress and the White House in support of a demand for $10 billion in loan guarantees to subsidize a massive housing program.
The housing program is effectively targeted on the disputed territories -- the West Bank and Gaza -- which have been under Israeli military occupation since the 1967 war.
The possession of these territories, including East Jerusalem, is the bone of contention between Palestinians and Jews, Arabs and Israelis. The fate of the territories was, in theory, to be decided at a forthcoming U.S.-backed peace conference. The call for loan guarantees is a pre-emptive strike.
Although President Bush has asked leaders in Congress to defer consideration of the Israeli request, their answer is not yet clear.
Instead of becoming sidetracked in a myriad of who-shot-Johns, Americans have to keep track of the basics. The Israeli government is trying to moot the peace process by swallowing and digesting the desirable parts of the disputed territories. That land grab is already far advanced. But it has been thrown into overdrive since the gulf war because of the threat of a peace settlement that might stop it.
Meanwhile, the Israeli government issues petulant threats about what it will do if it does not get its way. The behavior of Jerusalem resembles the acting out of a spoiled child.
The demand for an immediate $10 billion is an insulting power play as well as the latest in a series of torpedoes aimed at sinking the peace conference by causing the Palestinians to drop out. But the Bush administration is in a difficult situation because, until now, it has been permissive of previous Israeli acting out (for example, accepting the ridiculous Israeli stipulation that Israel will have a veto over the Palestinian negotiators).
American politics has long been overwhelmingly pro-Israeli for a combination of strategic reasons and cultural and blood ties. Although little by little the strategic arguments for backing Israel have become less compelling, U.S. opinion has not caught up to the manner in which the situation has changed.
Israel desperately needs financial support for many reasons -- above all, to settle the expected influx of Soviet Jews. But it merits that support only if its policies are in basic agreement with U.S. objectives.
This time Israel wants to take U.S. support and use it to defeat U.S. policy by swallowing the West Bank. The Palestinians are weak, and they know it. In terms of power, they can in the short term be brushed aside and ignored.
But if the United States is sincere about establishing a just Mideast peace, one remotely worthy of being part of a new world order, there must be a fair negotiation. In the meantime, settlements must stop.
The powerful grass-roots support for Israel may still exist, but increasingly it has its basis in ignorance of the situation. The periodic headlines generated by the intifada do not begin to do justice to the evolving ugliness of Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza, or to the preposterous scofflaw nature of the Shamir government's negotiating strategy.
In the battle for American public opinion in the weeks ahead, two points are essential: the unfairness of Israeli policy and the existence of American leverage.
Many Americans, including many Jews, are dismayed at the path Israel has taken. The assumption that all American Jews think alike and therefore will automatically close ranks about the unjust policies of the Israeli government is basically an anti-Semitic assumption. It should be buried.
Randolph Ryan is a member of the Boston Globe staff.