JERUSALEM, OCT. 6 -- Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and the American Jewish Congress, one of the leading Jewish organizations in the United States, are at odds over the group's controversial public statement supporting an international conference on Middle East peace.
The statement, which also calls for Israel to seek "realistic alternatives" to its military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, marks the first time a major American Jewish group has taken a stance on a highly partisan issue involving Israeli security interests. It has sparked controversy here over the role of Jewish interest groups abroad in influencing Israeli policy.
Shamir's spokesman, Yosef Achimeir, said today that the prime minister and his staff were "of course very angry and very upset" over the AJC's resolution, passed last month in New York. Achimeir said it essentially endorsed the position of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Shamir's governing coalition partner but main political rival. Shamir leads the right-leaning Likud bloc in the coalition and Peres heads the more dovish Labor Alignment.
"This breaks a longstanding agreement among American Jewish organizations not to get involved in internal politics in Israel, and of course there is a lot of anger and resentment in our office," said Achimeir in a telephone interview.
But Achimeir denied a statement from another Shamir aide that the prime minister would refuse to meet with AJC leaders in the future and would seek to exclude them from discussions on international affairs.
David Clayman, the group's Israeli representative, said he was told last week by Harry Horowitz, Shamir's adviser on affairs involving Jews abroad, that the prime minister "would no longer be available for meetings with AJC officials or briefings on international and national affairs."
Clayman said the AJC "was terribly upset and sorry that the prime minister reacted this way." He said the organization was not seeking to dictate policy to Israel, but rather "we have taken this unprecedented step in order to express our very great concern on this very important issue."
The statement, while calling the 20-year-old military occupation "relatively benign," warns that it is likely to lead to "repressive measures that, in the long run, cannot but distort and corrupt the values we associate with a Jewish state."
It rules out measures such as annexation of the territories or forced expulsion of Arabs, but stops short of endorsing a return of the West Bank to Jordan, calling instead for negotiations and an international conference on the issue. The statement was adopted Sept. 13 by the governing council of the AJC.
Horowitz was not available for comment, but Achimeir said Horowitz's statement excluding AJC leaders "was not made on behalf of the prime minister. We are upset, yes, but there will be no revenge."
The AJC position was lauded by Peres during his recent visit to the United States. He has been the main proponent here of an international conference, which Shamir adamantly opposes.
"We do not suggest that you decide instead of us," Peres told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last Wednesday in New York. "In any case, you cannot. But I would be very surprised if all of a sudden Jews would say, 'We are neutral on the issue of peace.' Think about it. I think it is a mistake."
"What are you afraid of?" Peres added. "Do you think that if you do not express a view, the U.S. government will not know that there is a difference of opinion in Israel?"
But other American Jewish groups, including some that have been highly critical of Israel's role in the Jonathan Pollard spy affair, said they would not take a stand on the peace issue because they consider it an internal Israeli matter.
"I would say that in questions involving foreign policy or security that impact on American public opinion -- such as the Pollard affair or Israel's relationship with South Africa -- it's legitimate and important for us to speak out," said Harry Wall, representative of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.
"However, when you're talking about the territories, you're talking about an issue that really is the responsibility for people living in Israel to resolve, because the consequences of any policy will inevitably be borne by the people living here and not by American Jews in Scarsdale or Shaker Heights."