Shamir's Painful Intransigence

MICHAEL LERNER

November 21, 1991|By MICHAEL LERNER

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA — Oakland, California. - Today, the media will join Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in his yearly media hoax: ''proving'' that he has American Jewish support for his policies. Mr. Shamir is to appear at the annual conference of the big pro-Israel fund-raisers who assemble at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations in Baltimore.

The fund-raisers will faithfully do their part by giving him a standing ovation. What the media will ignore is that these self-appointed leaders, like much of the Jewish establishment, are wildly out of step with the majority of American Jews.

The reason? The Jewish establishment is not organized democratically. Those who get power are those who have money or who know how to get others to donate money. In previous historical periods, it was the scholars, intellectuals and social activists who received the greatest respect in the Jewish world. Today, it is the fund-raisers who have hijacked the Jewish community and attempted to reshape it in their own image.

In exchange for their applause, Mr. Shamir will meet with them, sanction them as the official leaders of American Jewry and hence give them the legitimation they cannot get by democratic means.

Meanwhile, most American Jews oppose Mr. Shamir's settlement policies in the West Bank and are deeply disturbed by his refusal to consider exchanging land for peace. While most hope that internal pressure in Israel will force him to change his mind and become more flexible at the bargaining table, many suspect that he will remain unwilling to recognize Palestinian rights.

Most of us are strong supporters of Israel, and so are deeply worried that Mr. Shamir has been eroding American support for Israel by identifying the Zionist dream with his current intransigence. A demilitarized Palestinian state need not threaten Israel.

But if Mr. Shamir uses his proposed interim autonomy agreement to give Palestinians little more than limited control over municipal services, and meanwhile continues to settle thousands of Jews on the West Bank, he may create the greatest of all threats to Israel -- the loss of support among the American population.

That loss of support was dramatized when Mr. Shamir pushed for $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees to build more settlements. Cynically using the legitimate needs of Soviet Jews as his cover, Mr. Shamir demanded the money without agreeing to a settlement freeze on the West Bank.

When George Bush asked for a postponement till January, Mr. Shamir and some of these same fund-raisers meeting in Baltimore threatened to use their clout in the Congress to override his potential veto. They backed down when polls revealed that a startling 86 percent of the American population supported President Bush on this issue.

The loan guarantees will come up again in January, and Mr. Shamir's rejection of a settlement freeze puts most American Jews in a quandary. We want to help Soviet Jews, but we don't want U.S. money used to free up other funds in the Israeli budget that will go to consolidating Israel's hold on the occupied territories. Mr. Shamir has harmed American Jewish interests by seeming to identify us with policies that violate the best democratic and human rights traditions of the American public.

Demagogues spreading anti-Semitism use these illegitimate policies of the current Israeli government to try to discredit the entire Zionist enterprise and to isolate American Jews. And the media, which play along with Mr. Shamir's annual tour to visit those Jews who agree with him, give the American public the impression that American Jews support him.

The fact is that many of us would support strong moves by President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker that let Mr. Shamir know there will be no blank checks from America unless Israel is willing to freeze settlements and bargain an exchange of land for peace. And if Mr. Bush couples that with equally strong demands on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, and is careful not to play into anti-Semitic rhetoric, he will find that many American Jews support such a stand.

We want a strong Israel, we want the United States to make demands on the Arab states and not just on Israel, and after Syria's recent intransigence we certainly don't trust its willingness to make a real peace. But American Jews are able to distinguish between Syrian totalitarians and Palestinian civilians who are now ready to live in peace with Israel.

We hope the media and the president will start distinguishing between those fund-raisers who walk in lockstep with Mr. Shamir and the rest of American Jews who have been harmed by the inflexible and arrogant image he projects on the Jewish people. This man is serving himself and a small core of right-wingers, but is not serving the Jewish people or the long-term best interests of Israel.

Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine, a bi-monthly Jewish critique of politics, culture and society.

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