The U.S. has an obligation to former Soviet Jews who resettle penniless in Israel, because the U.S. for years pressured Moscow to let them go. Israel, whose core ideology says they are welcome, has an equal obligation. These joint moral debts form the basis of a presumed U.S. commitment to guarantee up to $10 billion in Israeli loans from commercial lenders for the resettlement of former Soviet Jews.
Both the U.S. implied promise and the hedging with which Secretary of State James A. Baker III surrounds it deserve the support of thinking Americans. It should be clear that this is not a $10 billion budget item. If all went well, as has been the case with loan guarantees to Israel in the past, there would be no U.S. expenditure. Yet the possibility that things could go sour, with commercial banks dunning the U.S. for debts Israel cannot pay, gives Washington an interest in how Israel uses its resources.
Secretary Baker's testimony to a House Foreign Operations subcommittee on Monday spelled out U.S. policy, contradicting earlier denials that the loan guarantees and the Middle East peace process were linked. Mr. Baker offers the guarantees if Israel halts all settlement activity, or lesser guarantees if Israel completes only what is already begun.
The Bush administration, seizing on a window of opportunity, is investing great effort and prestige in a peace process that most of the world wants to succeed. No American administration has recognized Israeli rights to build more settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. The only difference now is that a genuine peace effort coincides with an unprecedented Israeli need for housing stock.
On the face of it, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir must rebuke outside dictation. It is dedicated to populating ancient Judea and Samaria with Jewish settlements. According to Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, 22,000 new units were started in the territories or East Jerusalem since 1990. About 2,000 units have been started this year, and more are coming.
These settlements alarm Palestinians and undermine Arab participation in the talks. More to the point of the loan guarantees, these settlements absorb Israeli capital where relatively few Israelis want to live, rather that concentrating it to resettle Russian Jews where most can live in peace and find work by which to pay for the housing
Mr. Baker is playing hardball. Some Israelis in and out of the Shamir government will resent it as intervening in their June 23 election. But if the U.S. should put the humanitarian needs of the refugees uppermost, so should the Shamir government -- and it is not.
Having said that, we wonder why the Bush administration is not also pressuring Arab states to recognize Israel's right to exist in tandem with its demands for an Israeli halt to West Bank settlements. This would send a more balanced message.