WASHINGTON -- IN HIS confrontation with Yitzhak Shamir, President Bush finds himself in one of those happy situations for any politician in which the best policy is also the best politics.
This judgment may seem to fly in the face of the howls of pain that came protests were a better reflection of the effectiveness of the Israel lobby than of the reality of American voter opinion these days.
At the most obvious level, opinion polls consistently show strong majorities of voters opposed to foreign aid, particularly at a time when domestic concerns put such a demand on limited resources. It is, of course, accurate to say that loan guarantees are not the same thing as direct aid. But Israel is already the leading recipient of foreign aid funds, and even the guarantees will involve some additional expense. So it would not be surprising if voters didn't make fine distinctions.
The second element of the political context that argues against the guarantees-on-demand position taken by the Israeli prime minister is the reality of anti-Semitism among Americans that may be growing. Although it is difficult to measure, poll-takers do have techniques that can identify trends. And they suggest that the many politicians who say they detect rising anti-Semitism may be correct. Anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment cannot be equated. But it would be naive to imagine they are not `D connected in political thinking.
American public opinion toward Israel has fluctuated radically over the past few years, and there has never been much mystery about why. When the reports from Israel on the nightly television news broadcasts focused on Israelis putting down the intifada, opinion against Israel rose sharply. The situation was dramatically reversed, however, when Israel showed such remark able restraint during the war in the Persian Gulf.
The Israelis have not seemed to learn the lesson of television news, however. One of the factors in public opinion today -- and one of those underlying Bush's stance -- has been the film of Ariel Sharon, the confrontational housing minister, rushing to begin new settlements in the occupied territories every time Secretary of State James Baker arrives in Israel on his mission to further the peace conference. You don't have to be a public relations genius to understand that such provocative behavior is going to evoke a backlash among American voters. The same can be said for Shamir's tough talk during the current brouhaha.
The Israelis sought the guarantees to provide housing for Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union, a movement in which the United States played a leading role. But no one imagines that the ability of Israel to settle those newcomers would be permanently compromised by a delay of 120 days, as the Shamir government seemed to be arguing. Instead, it is clear to everyone that Shamir wants the guarantees settled before a Middle East peace conference that inevitably will deal with the settlements issue -- and that Bush is just as determined to see that another sudden rush to build settlements will not give the Arabs an excuse for recalcitrance at the bargaining table.
The result is a situation in which Americans are faced with choosing between their own president and a prime minister who says, in effect, that Israel will build settlements wherever it chooses and at its own pace even if financing comes from U.S. loan guarantees. It's not hard to figure how that one comes out.
None of this suggests that Israel does not have great influence in Congress and American politics in general. American Jews participate in politics far more seriously and reliably than other groups, both in terms of the money they contribute and their personal activism. Although they make up less than 5 percent of the electorate, they can be depended upon to vote and they are a large enough bloc to be politically significant in such major states as New York, Illinois, California, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Thus, they are in a position to apply heavy pressure to Congress and to the White House and have never been shy about doing so. But the Shamir government and its supporters in the United States should recognize that the political context is not one in which tough talk is going to prevail against President Bush. He holds the high ground.