Rather than helping the Jewish state, the protests by a number of American Jewish organizations against the U.N. resolution condemning Israel's role in the Oct. 8 Temple Mount tragedy, in which 21 Palestinian Arabs were killed, may have hurt Israel's cause.
The United States displayed considerable skill in helping to shape a U.N. resolution that recognizes the tragedy of what occurred on the Temple Mount without placing the entire blame on Israel. Nevertheless, many Jewish organizations were quick to object. The Rabbinical Council of America, for example, designated Oct. 20 "a Sabbath of protest" and registered "sharp dismay at the behavior of the American administration in this crisis."
It is one thing to condemn the world's rush to a negative judgment about Israel's behavior -- a condemnation in which we join -- but this does not justify a similar rush to exoneration. No doubt it would have been better had the Security Council waited for all the facts to emerge -- and perhaps it would have if Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had quickly appointed an investigative commission with real authority. But the United States was dealing with a difficult and volatile situation. The future of the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq, an effort whose success is vital for Israeli security, was put at risk by the Oct. 8 events. American lives, not just Israeli lives, are now at stake.
Israel is fortunate that the United States, its most important ally, took the lead in crafting the resolution. Condemning the resolution does not help Israel. What would really help Israel now would be to find out the truth about the tragedy of Oct. 8. This is especially important because of the great uncertainty about what actually happened. Reports by Israeli journalists have raised questions about the Israeli government's assertion that the Palestinian assault on the Western Wall was unprovoked. And while the Israeli government has tried to implicate Saddam Hussein in the bloodshed, there have been no indications that Iraq helped to plan the assault.
It was Israeli policemen who ended the lives of 21 people and wounded scores more. Did Police Minister Roni Milo, who is of the ruling Likud Party, know there were only 45 Israeli policemen on hand before the rioting began. If he did, why did he permit it? A year ago, at an equally volatile time, then-Police Minister Haim Bar Lev, of the Labor Party, stationed 3,000 Israeli policemen there, and there was no violence.
Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall were entitled to expect they would be left to their sacred pursuit. Palestinian clerics were spiritually reckless when they risked an attack on Jews at a holy place on a holiday. But that does not absolve the Israeli government of responsibility for finding out the truth, despite the fact that the condemnation by the Security Council might well have been the consequence of oil politics.
Shamir appointed a commission two days after the incident, but it has no subpoena powers, and its findings carry no legal weight. This does not do justice to Israeli democracy.
Last week the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a lobby that has the critical role of securing essential U.S. aid for Israel, issued a paper entitled "Talking Points on the Saddam-Arafat-Hammas Perpetrated Tragedy at the Temple Mount." In the face of numerous press reports raising questions about the events of Oct. 8, AIPAC flatly asserted that the attack on Jews was unprovoked and premeditated, and it defended the level of force used by the Israeli authorities.
It would be well to remember the signal importance, in the wake of Sabra and Shatila, of the Kahan Commission, and especially of the honor that came to Israel as a result of its fearless devotion to the truth. Much of the damage that was done to Israel by the events themselves was mitigated by its readiness to look squarely into the mirror. The Kahan Commission was appointed by then-prime minister Menachem Begin only after considerable delay and after an unprecedented declaration by Israeli citizens and by Israel's American friends that no cover-up would be tolerated.
This is a moment of strain and significance in the special relationship between Israel and the United States. It is another in a series of crises that are having a cumulative and damaging effect. The crisis in the Gulf had already raised the possibility that there are limits to Israel's strategic value to the United States. In any case, at the heart of the relationship there has always been a sense of shared values and commonly revered democratic tradition. It is the task of those who would defend Israel in this country to spell that out in a manner that makes the message clear.
Israel will retain the respect and support of the rest of the world in the same way it ensures its own security: by entering into negotiations that lead to a verifiable peace agreement with its enemies. Until such negotiations can occur, Israel and its supporters must act consistently with that vision in mind. Many American Jewish leaders have done just the opposite.
Gerald B. Bubis, professor emeritus at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, and Peter B. Edelman, associate dean of the Georgetown University Law Center, are co-chairmen of Americans for Peace Now.