Election years are not especially good times for sensitive diplomatic maneuvering. Issues tend to be painted in stark terms on the hustings while they need to be discussed in shades of gray across the negotiating table. With both the United States and Israel embarking on national elections, the conflicting pressures of domestic politics and foreign policy are pushing both governments into extreme positions. The political intimacy and sense of common purpose that has marked the special relationship for several decades is dangerously frayed.
After initially promising to support another $10 billion loan guarantee to Israel so it can continue constructing housing for Soviet Jews who are fleeing their homeland, President Bush has raised the ante. He will not permit the guarantee to proceed unless Israel agrees to halt construction of new settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, territory occupied by Israel since 1967 but not recognized as part of that nation by the United States.
The President explains his decision, more than a little disingenuously, as simply a continuation of long-standing U.S. policy. It is correct that the U.S. has consistently opposed the settlements in the occupied territories pending a permanent peace settlement between Israel and its neighbors. But it is also a fact that the U.S. has limited its opposition to verbal warnings in the past. Now the administration is holding the loan guarantee hostage to Israeli compliance, a significant escalation.
As for Israel, it has stretched the vital housing program for Soviet Jews to embrace another, more controversial, objective. Some of the settlements are plainly designed to strengthen the Jewish presence in the West Bank and thus to bolster Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir's determination never to yield any of that land. Faced with an opposition party that is willing to trade land for peace, Mr. Shamir proclaims his refusal to budge.
Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Shamir are looking over their right shoulders as they simultaneously campaign and conduct foreign policy. Mr. Bush appears to believe he must mollify the nativist and neo-isolationist fears stirred by Patrick Buchanan. Mr. Shamir needs the support, not only of his Likud party's right wingers but also of even more conservative splinter parties in order to govern.
The U.S. commitment both to Israel's well-being and to the successful absorption of Soviet Jews, whose emigration this country sought for so long, remains. But so does its commitment to peace in the Middle East. Continued construction of %o settlements on the West Bank is an obstacle, as is the persistent refusal of hardline Arab states to recognize Israel's right to exist. Mr. Bush will have to deal even-handedly with both these problems if he is ever tot achieve his worthy goal of bringing peace to the Middle East.