WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III tried to dampen a mounting crisis in relations with American Jews yesterday and intensified efforts to strike a deal with Capitol Hill on loan guarantees for Israel.
Mr. Baker met with two top officials of a major Jewish leadership organization to assure them that the United States was not abandoning Israel, and to voice concern about rising anti-Semitism and anti-ethnic sentiment in this country.
Meanwhile, Baker spokeswoman Margaret D. Tutwiler denounced as "false," "outrageous" and "garbage" a column in the New York Post by former Mayor Edward I. Koch accusing Mr. Baker of having said of Jewish supporters of Israel, "F - - - 'em. They didn't vote for us."
The accusation was attributed to an unnamed source who supposedly heard it at a meeting of White House advisers.
The strong denial failed to prevent Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., from saying that Mr. Baker should pull out of the Mideast peace process. Rep. Larry Smith, D-Fla., said Mr. Baker should respond, and resign if the allegations prove true.
The Bush administration's relations with the Jewish community have been rocky because it is widely perceived as less pro-Israel than previous administrations.
Friction has intensified in the months-long struggle over Israel's request for $10 billion in loan guarantees to settle Russian Jews.
Shaken last fall by President Bush's assault on the pro-Israel lobby, many Jewish organizations initially adopted a much lower profile when the request was renewed in January. This coincided with opposition among many U.S. Jews to the Likud government's settlement policy in the occupied territories.
But as Mr. Baker toughened his conditions linking loan guarantees to a settlement freeze, Israel's supporters have become more unified and outspoken. At a meeting Thursday in New York with top Baker adviser Dennis Ross, Jewish leaders stressed their unhappiness with Mr. Baker's conditions, and voiced concern over an erosion in U.S.-Israeli ties and the Bush administration's relations with American Jews.
Yesterday's meeting between Mr. Baker and Shoshana Cardin of Baltimore, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Malcolm Hoenlein, its executive director, was set up Thursday night.
Mr. Baker refused to bend U.S. policy demanding a settlement halt, but said he wanted to see an agreement on loan guarantees, Ms. Cardin said in an interview.
He seemed "genuinely concerned" over growing anti-Semitism and anti-ethnic feeling in the United States, she said. But the two leaders told him that his blunt congressional testimony last week outlining loan-guarantee conditions had not allayed those attitudes, she added.
"He said he wanted to share with us that he meant with every ounce of feeling that we should not construe U.S. policy as an abandonment of Israel," she said.
They also discussed the Koch quote. "He says this is not true. Why should we speculate that it is on the basis of anonymous charges?" Mr. Hoenlein said.