By voting twice within 12 days for a U.N. Security Council condemnation of Israel, the Bush administration has opened the door to a bitter dispute with the Israeli government and its supporters in the American Jewish community that could bring U.S.-Israeli relations to their lowest ebb in the 42-year history of the Jewish state.
The Persian Gulf crisis and President Bush's determination to force Iraq to end its occupation of Kuwait have pushed to the surface many long-submerged problems between Washington and Jerusalem, nurturing tensions that began shortly after Bush became president almost two years ago.
There are many causes for these frictions: personality clashes and lack of communication and rapport between senior officials of the two countries, increasing differences over Israel's handling of unrest among Palestinians under its occupation and a feeling on the U.S. side that the cutthroat nature of internal Israeli politics frequently has driven its leaders to deal with the United States in a duplicitous manner.
To the Israelis and to many American Jews, recent U.S. actions in the United Nations and elsewhere are a sign that the administration wants to distance itself from Israel to strengthen the fragile coalition of Arab countries allied with the United States against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Israel and its American supporters charge that the two U.S. votes in the Security Council -- first to condemn the killing of as many as 21 Palestinians in an Oct. 8 clash with Israeli security forces and, on Wednesday night, to deplore the Israeli government's refusal to cooperate with a U.N. investigation of the killings -- were motivated by Washington's desire not to antagonize the Arab states participating in the anti-Iraq alliance.
"We are deeply disappointed in this vote and in the role of the United States in supporting the censure of Israel," Seymour D. Reich, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said following the Wednesday vote. Jewish community sources said the relatively restrained statement was an attempt to avoid confrontation with the administration and keep the channels open for dialogue.
In private conversations, however, representatives of some American Jewish organizations angrily contend that Bush's background as a Houston oil man makes him instinctively pro-Arab; that White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, an American of Arab descent, is the hidden hand behind U.S. policy in the Middle East; and that Secretary of State James A. Baker III and U.N. Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering have personal antipathies toward Israel.
While generating considerable heat in the American Jewish community, such charges are generally dismissed as incorrect and uninformed by representatives of Jewish organizations that deal directly with administration officials.
They acknowledge that Bush, Baker and other senior administration officials repeatedly have stressed their commitment to Israel's security. And, while Israel's supporters remain concerned that the administration's plan to sell more than $20 billion in U.S. weapons to Saudi Arabia could pose long-term dangers to the Jewish state, they say the administration has taken a step toward easing Israeli anxieties about the $7 billion first installment of the expected arms sale by topping off the $3 billion that makes Israel the largest recipient of U.S. aid with an additional $700 million in U.S. weaponry.
In the view of many lobbyists working on Israel's behalf, the problem is less the administration's failure to do the right things for Israel than a sense that it does them in a grudging manner. Summing up this view, Jess Hordes, Washington representative of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League, said:
"Bush is not anti-Israeli. But he and his key policy-makers seem to regard Israel as an unruly partner and a nuisance that tends to interfere with broader American interests in the region."
Some prominent American Jews privately concede that Bush and Baker frequently have had cause to be annoyed at an Israeli government whose actions, they say, are driven by a four-way struggle for power between Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Foreign Minister David Levy, Defense Minister Moshe Arens and Housing Minister Ariel Sharon.
"The present government in Jerusalem is the most inept in Israeli history," said one American Jew who has long supported Israel. "Each of the four aspirants for power is driven primarily by the desire to gain advantage at the expense of the others, and if it will help them, they have no hesitation about doing things that cause problems for American policy."
Within the U.S. administration, senior officials say that while Bush's people may not be as demonstrative as some of their predecessors in showing affection for Israel, a bedrock tenet of American foreign policy is that the Jewish state remains one of the United States' closest friends and allies.
"U.S.-Israeli relations are an area involving a higher anxiety level than our relations with most other countries," said a senior State Department official. "Every blip is taken as a sign of profound change. But the idea that even now, when U.S. attention unavoidably is focused on the Persian Gulf rather than Israel's concerns, there has been a change in U.S. policy or attitudes is simply not true. We probably always will have ups and downs, but the relationship is solid."
The official insisted that is so despite Israeli resentment over such U.S. moves as the administration's call for Israel to maintain a low profile so as not to disturb the anti-Iraq alliance and its two U.N. votes on the Jerusalem killings. The latter is a departure from usual U.S. practice of vetoing Security Council resolutions that censure Israel without acknowledging possible Arab provocations.
"There are certain matters of principle on which we will not budge, and that includes our feeling that Israel is too quick to resort to disproportionate force in dealing with Palestinian unrest rather than trying to solve the problem through dialogue and restraint," the official said.
The United States fought a largely successful battle in the United Nations to tone down the harshness of the censure and block calls for giving the Security Council a role in protecting Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territories. But Washington won no thanks from Israel and American Jews, who had demanded a veto.
That mind-set causes White House and State Department officials dealing with the Middle East to mutter privately about how Israel's actions frequently impinge on U.S. relations with the Arab world. That has been the case especially during the last 15 years when the Israeli government has been controlled most of the time by the Likud Party bloc with its ideological view that Israel should retain permanent control over the Palestinian-inhabited territories.
While that always had great potential for friction, it was kept in bounds throughout most of the 1980s largely because President Ronald Reagan and then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz were strongly supportive of the Jewish state and kept on good terms with Likud leaders. As a result, even such inflammatory situations as Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon never generated the kind of acrimony now building between the two governments.
The changes under the Bush administration are due partly to personal factors. As one American Jew prominent in Republican Party affairs privately observed, "Shamir is much too ethnic in his manner and Bush much too white-bread in his for there to be any real spark of empathy between them."
Nor have Baker and Shamir had much success in establishing a sympathetic chemistry. Baker last year struck at the heart of Likud ideology by calling on Israel to give up its "unrealistic vision of a Greater Israel," and he has been viewed with suspicion in Israel and American Jewish circles ever since. He was only restating a policy laid down by Shultz and Reagan, but his blunt words branded him in Israeli eyes as inherently hostile to their aspirations.
Baker, in turn, became deeply disillusioned with Shamir after spending months trying to work out a formula to implement the Israeli leader's call for an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, only to have Shamir reject it at the last moment. Since that happened last spring, Baker has made little effort to conceal his feeling that Shamir did not deal with him in good faith.
Nevertheless, even American Jews who say that part of the blame lies in Jerusalem contend that U.S. interests would be served better if the administration showed greater tolerance for the occasional contrariness of the present government until a new generation of Israeli leaders emerges and starts to realize the need for better accommodation with its most important ally.
"The problem with Baker's approach is that it's all tactics for dealing with the problems of the moment without taking a long-range view," one said. "There is no finesse, no sign of understanding that you're dealing with a small country living in a very hostile neighborhood and very frightened about its survival. As a result, the situation is being driven by two opposing forces -- the internal politics of Israel and the politics of America's gulf crisis coalition -- that could come into head-on collision and cause the first real derailment of the U.S.-Israeli relationship."