President Carter reaffirmed his support for Israel and defended his Middle East policies last night while suggesting to a Jewish audience that there is more at stake in the 1980 presidential election than the question of the U.S. attitude toward Israel.
In a speech to the closing session of the B'nai B'rith convention, the president responded indirectly to the stinging criticism of his Middle East policies leveled Wednesday night beforethe same Jewish service organization by Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan.
But while defending those policies and asserting that the negotiating process begun by the Camp David accords holds the best chance for peace in the Middle East, Carter reminded the Jewish organization of its historic ties to the Democratic Party and of its traditional support for liberal causes.
Without mentioning Reagan, the president said that he stood with B'nai B'rith in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, for "the separation of church and state that has served us so well," for a "competent and independent judiciary" and for "a future of ever-expanding civil rights and civil liberties."
He also suggested that Reagan's opposition to the administrations energy program indicates he is naively unaware of "the foreign policy and national security costs" of U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
"We should consider very carefully who might be secretary of energy and secretary of state in a different administration," Carter said.
In effect, Carter told the Jewish leaders that while they might disagree with policies toward Israel, those policies offered Israel its best chance ever of attaining a comprehensive peace settlement, and that on other issues he stood much closer to the values they espouse than does Reagan.
The president, following Reagan and independent presidential candidate John B. Anderson in the courtship of the influential Jewish leaders who could be crucial in states such as New York in November, clearly received a boost from the announcement Wednesday that the suspended Palestinian autonomy talks would be resumed.
Carter said he had discussed the Middle East peace negotiations in a telephone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin yesterday morning, and the president pledged his willingness to attend a Middle East summit conference later this year if necessary to get the talks moving again.
An agreement to resume the autonomy talks at an unspecified date and to "consult" on a summit meeting involving Carter, Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was announced by U.S. Middle East special envoy Sol Linowitz in Cairo on Wednesday.
It was announced in Israel yesterday that Begin had accepted an invitation to make an unofficial visit to the White House on Nov. 11, one week after the presidential election.
Reagan's strongly pro-Israel speech and his indictment of Carter's Middle East policies were enthusiastically received by the B'nai B'rith audience Wednesday night.
In response, the president said last night in defense of his policies:
"The road will not be easy. I cannot assure you we will always agree with every position taken by the government of Israel. But whatever differences arise, they will never affect our commitment to a secure Israel. There will be no so-called 'reassessment' of support for Israel in a Carter administration."
Reaction to Carter's speech last night was polite but seldom enthusiastic, although the president's remarks about Israel and his assurances of his commitment to Israeli security were interrupted repeatedly by applause. o
Carter was also warmly praised by B'nai B'rith international president Jack Spitzer, who said Carter had "made good" on his 1976 campaign promises to be a "champion of human rights and defender of a peaceful and secure Israel."
The president said he had undertaken "high political risks" in initiating the Camp David peace process that led to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and the autonomy talks, and he predicted that the process will succeed "if we stay the course."
"Ultimately, as all of us know, there is no other way to peace in the Middle East except through negotiation," Carter said. "No one who cherishes the goal of peace can allow that course to founder.
"This is the policy I shall continue to follow. There will not be one policy for an election year and another after the election. The same policy that led to Camp David and an uninterrupted supply of American economic and military aid to Israel will continue as long as I am president."
Reagan charged that Carter's "weak and confused leadership" had enhanced Soviet influence in the Middle East and placed Israel in "grave danger." He won loud applause when he criticized Carter for not branding the Palestine Liberation Organization as "terrorist."
Carter ignored the charge concerning the Soviet Union, but replied more directly to other aspects of his opponent's criticism. He said the United States will not recognize the PLO until it recognizes Israel's right to exist, adding, "As I have repeatedly stated, it is long past time for an end to terrorism."
Reagan's basic message to the Jewish organization was that Israel is "a major strategic asset to America" that has been imperiled by the Carter administration. Last night, the president declared that the "special relationship" between the United States and Israel "is in the strategic and moral interest of the United States."
Reagan was sharply critical of the administration's failure to veto a U.N. resolution opposing Israeli control of Jerusalem. Carter ignored this as well, but reaffirmed his commitment that "jerusalem should remain forever undivided with free access to the holy places" and that the city's futures should be settled "with the full concurrence of Israel."
Carter also pledged to maintain pressure on the Soviet Union to reverse the decline in the number of Soviet Jews allowed to emigrate and to raise the issue in Madrid at the November conference on European security and cooperation.
Unlike Reagan, the president devoted less than half of his speech to issues directly affecting Israel as he attacked Reagan on other grounds and accused him of being "guided by nostalgia" and of offering "a verbal recreation of a past that never was."