President Carter asserting that he would "rather commit political suicide than hurt Israel," tried yesterday to convince a largely Jewish congressional delegation that the United States has not swerved from its commitment to Israel's security.
Carter appeared to have succeeded, but at the same time he came under new attack by the Republican congressional leadership, which accused him of allowing the Soviet Union to re-exert its influence in the Middle East.
Emerging from the 40-minute meeting at the White House, most of the 27 House members who attended said the President had put to rest their fears about a weakening in the U.S. commitment to support Israel.
The meeting, which was not publicly announced beforehand, was a direct result of last weekend's Soviet-American statement setting forth guidelines for a Middle East peace conference in Geneva.
The joint declaration caused an uproar in the American Jewish community and gloom in Israel.One phrase in the declaration referred to the "legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, language Israel interprets as an unacceptable concession to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, with which is refuses to negotiate.
Even before yesterday's meeting, the administration had moved to mollify Israel's supporters. American and Israeli officials, including the President and Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, agreed in New York early Wednesday morning on a formula for reconvening a Middle East peace conference.
The formula has not been made public, but following the agreement U.S. officials said that the Soviet-American declaration, while still in force, "is not a prerequisite for the reconvening of the Geneva conference."
Following the White House meeting, Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.) said he was impressed by "what was not said" in the declaration, contending that by dropping its usually strong anti-Israel language the Soviet Union had made major concessions in the joint statement.
"After [Carter] explanation of what was not said, we felt virtually unanimously that it wasn't the threat we thought it was," he said.
Rep. Edward I. Koch (D-N.Y.), the Democratic candidate for mayor of New York who Tuesday personally handed the President a letter condemning the Soviet-American statement, said, "I came away assured that his commitment to Israel was as firm as it ever was."
White House efforts to soften criticism of its Middle East policy, however, were not entirely successful yesterday. At the noon hour, after the congressional delegation had left, about 700 supporters of Israel staged a protest against the Soviet-American declaration in Lafayette Park.
Meanwhile, the Republican leaders of the House and Senate sharply criticised the President for "reintroducing Soviet power and influence in the Middle East - from which it has been driven."
House Minority Leader John J. Rhodes (R-Ariz.) and Senate Minority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) said the Soviet-American declaration "goes a long way toward" imposing a peace settlement in the Middle East. They also attempted to link it with Carter's efforts to obtain an agreement in the strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) with the Soviets and his decision not to build the B-1 bomber.
"[Soviet] President [Leonid] Brezhnev's cavalier rejection of Mr. Carter's initial SALT proposal appears to have paid off," they said. "The United States is now minus one major Weapon system and appears well on the way to establishing the Soviet Union as a principle factor in the Middle East."
In addition, to the Republican Criticism, a group of more than 150 members of Congress - including some who were at the White House meeting - sent the President a letter yesterday expressing "shock" at the Soviet-American declaration and fear that it was a move toward "an imposed peace in the Middle East."
Despite all the activity on the Middle East and other matters yesterday, the White House chose not to conduct a regular news briefing for reporters. It issued several routine announcements, among them that there will be a White House conference on the steel industry Oct. 13.