President Carter was so aggrieved by tough questioning during a picture-taking session with 30 Jewish leaders in the East Room of the White House March 4 that he stalked out before any pictures could be taken -- bringing into sharp focus his Israel dilemma.
The dilemma: Jimmy Carter has driven himself into a corner by attempting to reconcile his honest convictions over the future of the West Bank with his contortions to satisfy the important Jewish constituency he needs for reelection. The two are unreconcilable.
Until his retraction of the anti-Israel vote by the United States March 1 in the U.N. Security Council, Carter had seemed to be handling the Arab-Israeli time bomb discreetly enough to avoid an explosion. The U.N. vote ended that impression.
On March 4, Commerce Secretary Philip Klutznick arranged to have the president go to the East Room, where 30 American Jewish leaders from the World Jewish Congress had been invited to have their pictures taken with Jimmy Carter. Carter was still steaming over the violent criticism he had been taking from Israel and American Jewish leaders in the United States over the Security Council vote.
When he entered, he apologized for what he called the "glitch" in his failure to have understood full implications of the U.N. vote. Then, "warm and friendly," according to one Jewish leader who was there, he smiled and said, "If you can stand to have your picture taken with me, now is the time."
Instead, Arthur Schneier, a prominent New York rabbi, rose to ask this question: how could Israel be certain that there wouldn't be another "glitch" in the future? That angered Jimmy Carter; he gave a chilly reply, cancelled the picture session, turned on his heel and walked away.
The president's reaction and the question that provoked it were made inevitable by Carter. He has been stretching credibility to convince the Jewish community and Israel that there is not all that much difference between him and them on Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Rosalynn Carter, the president's alter ego on the campaign trail, has been telling Jewish audiences exactly what they want to hear. Even Egypt agrees, she told the international biennial convention of B'nai B'rith here March 12, "that Jerusalem never be divided" -- a "commitment" that, she said, has not changed.
Those words make it sound as though Carter is nearly in step with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on his pledge that Jerusalem never again will be politically partitioned. Actually, the official U.S. position is unchanged from 1969, as Carter pointedly told Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in a letter written during the Camp David Mideast summit. The policy is that East Jerusalem "is occupied territory," as are Palestinian lands held by Israel on the conquered West Bank.
Rosalynn Carter's formulation is explained by politicians running Carter's reelection campaign as meaning that the United States will never allow a "physical" division of Jerusalem -- division by barbed wire, as it was until Israel seized East Jerusalem in the 1967 war. An Arab diplomat friendly to Carter told us: "Technically, Mrs. Carter was perhaps correct. But the 'undivided city' pledge carries much stronger implications to American Jews, who see it as justification of Israel's claim to eternal possession of all Jerusalem."
The dilemma Carter has imposed on himself by pretending to be more in tune with Israel than he is cannot be resolved by flimflammery. He is justly praised for high courage in fighting Begin's "illegal" land acquisitions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. But Carter's backtracking on the U.N. resolution, to persuade Jewish voters he is really on their side, only intensifies his problem.
Observing the president's conduct, America's European allies are losing hope about U.S. policy and are instead moving to force Israel out of the West Bank as soon as the May deadline for West Bank autonomy passes. That will compel Carter, partly to offset Israel's nearly total isolation, to defend Israeli policies that Carter believes are against the U.S. national interest and to which he himself can never subscribe.
The Israeli issue in American politics has bedeviled many presidents, but none so much as Jimmy Carter. Trapped by his public repudiation of the U.N. vote, the ensuing campaign to convince his Jewish constituency he is truly sorry has made it certaian that he will be bedeviled even more in the future, as shown by that unused camera in the East Room.