President Carter's announcement that the United States had made a mistake by voting Saturday for a U.N. resolution to censure Israel set off strong political reverberations yesterday.
Carter aides said their quick admission of error had ensured that the ultimate consequences would be minor, but other presidential candidates hoped the incident could be exploited.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) seized on the incident's two implications: that Carter's support for Israel is uncertain, and that the administration is incompetent.
"It's rather incredulous that it could be a mistake of that dimension," Kennedy said in Boston. "it must put into serious question the decision making process of the administration and our commitment to the state of Israel."
In Washington former Wisconsin governor Patrick J. Lucey, spokesman for the Kennedy campaign, called the White House reversal "bizarre and unbelievable."
Republican presidential candidate George Bush issued a statement calling the incident "another example of the Carter administration bullying our friends and another example of vacillation."
By coincidence, a number of Jewish leaders were in Washington yesterday for previously scheduled briefings at the State Department and White House. President Carter met with them in a meeting that was not on their original agenda to try to reassure them that U.S. policy toward Israel was unchanged.
Later some said they were reassured, and others expressed confusion and incredibility that such a mixup could occur.
Howard M. Squadron, president of the American Jewish Congress, issued a statement saying. "We are not satisfied with the administration's confession of error." Squadron said the White House admission was based entirely on references in the controversial resolution to East Jerusalem, references Carter said the United States should not have approved.
However, Squadron said, the U.N. resolution included many other departures from past American policy he deplored.
A smiliar point was made by Theodore Mann, chairman of the Council of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which met in New York to discuss the incident. Mann said the council would be writing to Carter complaining about other elements in the resolution, including its call for dismantling Israeli settlements on the West Bank, its reference to "Palestinian territories," its unprecedented call for sanctions against Israel, and others. Carter said yesterday that these aspects of the resolution were acceptable to the United States, but references to East Jerusalem as if it were occupied territory were not acceptable.
Mann said the U.S. vote for the U.N. resolution was "unacceptable" to all segments of opinion within American Jewry," a fact that he said he thought the White House had quickly realized Monday.
Mann called the incident a demonstration of "quite extraordinary incompetence in an extraordinarily delicate situation."
Mann said he had been contacted yesterday about the possibility of meeting today with Kennedy in New York. An official at the Kennedy campaign office in New York said Kennedy had made time in his schedule today for a meeting with Jewish leaders, apparently in an attempt to capitalize on the controversy.
Sources close to the Carter campaign acknowledged yesterday that political considerations had played a role in the decision to admit a mistake on the U.N. vote publicly. The public admission came late Monday after a long day and evening of White House meetings with many political operatives, including the director of the Carter campaign in heavily Jewish New York.
Sources said the negative political implications of Saturday's vote were raised Monday morning by Vice President Mondale, chief of staff Hamilton Jordan and Sol M. Lnowitz, Carter's special ambassador for Middle East peace negotiations.
One senior official said the incident "could have meant a great deal more politically if we hadn't quickly admitted our mistake. I do think it was the smartest thing we could have done."
The official acknowledged that the reopening of a "competence" issue that came with the admission of error was "something we will have to swallow, there's no question about it."
Carter moved yesterday to assuage Jewish leaders' anger over the U.N. vote, but in the process added to the confusion surrounding the episode. u
About 30 members of the American section of the World Jewish Congress met with senior White House officials, and later heard an explanation from the president.
Emerging from the meeting, which had been planned before the U.N. vote, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, the chairman of the organizations, quoted Carter as saying that his instructions were to abstain in the Security council vote if the resolution mentioned Jerusalem or called for the dismantlement of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.
This directly contradicted the president's statement Monday night, when he said the key issue was Jerusalem. In that statement, Carter said that while the United States objected to a reference to dismantling the settlements, it was prepared to vote for a resolution containing such language as long as the resolution did not also refer to the status of Jerusalem.
Alarmed that Schneier and several others came away from yesterday's meeting with a different impression that suggested a further backing away from the U.N. vote by the administration, White House officials quickly produced a quote from Carter during the meeting that apparently led to the new confusion.
"I instructed that we would abstain from the U.N.'s resolution that had any reference in it to Jerusalem, and that we would make it clear that we did not favor the dismantling of existing settlements," the president was quoted as saying.
Schneier said the Jewish leaders had expressed their "dismay, concern and consternation" over the U.N. vote and that they came away from the meeting with some reassurances.
But Herbert Berman, treasurer of the group, said he found Carter's explanation of the episode "incredible and no one in the room believed it."
In New York, a prominent Democrat who is both Jewish and a Carter supporter observed that "it's lucky for Israel that this is an election year." s