Los Angeles -- It is important to be clear about the issue in the current dispute between the United States and Israel. It is whether Israel is going to annex the West Bank and Gaza in the years ahead without meaningful objection by the United States.
The nominal subject of the conflict is Israel's request for $10 billion in loan guarantees to help resettle Soviet Jews. The Israeli government and its American supporters say the guarantees must be approved at once, while President Bush wants Congress to hold up considering the idea for four months.
But the very suddenness and haste of the Israeli request make plain what is really at stake. Prime Minister Shamir and his government want the United States to get committed to this new program without any chance to put conditions on it conditions that would inhibit the process of Israeli settlement in, and effective annexation of, the occupied territories.
This is a last clear chance for the United States to do something about the planting of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. American policy under the last five presidents has opposed settlements, but the policy has had no effect: indeed less than none, because U.S. aid makes the settlements possible.
How could that be? Yossi Sarid, a member of the Israeli Knesset from the Citizens' Rights Party, explained in The Los Angeles Times:
"Through a simple circular movement, dollars (in aid for Israel) flowed to security, education and welfare, while shekels freed from those budgets flowed into the construction of at least 200 settlements. . . . The American government agreeably played dumb."
The same thing happened with a first U.S. program of housing loan guarantees. The Bush administration insisted on a promise that the program would not be used to settle people in the occupied territories. The Israeli government gave the promise but then used other funds to accelerate the building of settlements.
Settlements are rapidly bringing the occupied territories to the point of no return: a point where Israeli annexation is a reality, whatever the political pretense. That would be a fateful moment for all of us who yearned for the creation of the Jewish state and who hope for its safety and prosperity.
Israel would then be a binational state, with 1.7 million West Bank and Gaza Palestinians inside its borders. They would not have rights of the kind that Americans take for granted, such as the right to vote.
In short, Israel would have an alien people in its midst, and it would have to keep that people down by force forever. Forever, that is, unless the Israeli politicians who want to expel the Palestinians from their homes in the West Bank and Gaza such as Rehavam Zeevi, the far-right member of Shamir's Cabinet who this week called President Bush an anti-Semite have their way.
Such an outcome would be terrible for Israel, morally and politically. The Arab states on its borders will not make peace the peace that Israel so needs if settlement and annexation proceed.
There would be material consequences, too. Whatever aid the ** U.S. Government gives cannot be sufficient for the great humanitarian enterprise of absorbing the Soviet Jews. There must be investment by the industrial world, and that will not come in the needed amount if the situation on the borders and inside the country remains unstable.
Some who criticize Bush say he could ask Congress later to impose conditions. But the chance of doing so once the loan guarantee program is in place is approximately zero.
Or again, it is said that Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir may voluntarily freeze the settlement process if a peace conference gets under way. Yes, and the moon may land in Toledo, Ohio, broken into neat packages of green cheese. Shamir has always said he is for a Greater Israel, and he is a man who means what he says.
An especially sad aspect of this dispute is the role of American Jewish organizations. Many of their leaders are deeply opposed to annexation. But they have got themselves into the position of supporting just about anything that Yitzhak wants, even when annexation is going to be the result.
Bush is courageous to resist the demand for a blank check in loan guarantees. His position is essential to the hope of peace and to the future of Israel.