Published in The Jerusalem Post on November 30, 1997
New York…….What started as a Jewish family fight has become a dangerous diplomatic game. The Conversion Law dispute is now impacting negatively on ties at the highest government level between Washington and Jerusalem. Indications are that Clinton Administration officials believe they’ve got enough slack from the upset US Jewish community to put the screws on Prime Minister Netanyahu. I say: beware of misreading the situation.
Start with the deep-rooted distaste for the Netanyahu government expressed openly by many, many American Jews. New Israel Fund direct-mail literature speaks of Israel with visceral revulsion as if it was fundamentalist Iran — and the Fund is doing fabulously well. The demonizing rhetoric at play in radical Reform circles — both in regard to the “pluralism” issue and the peace process — is having a particularly corrosive effect. The Administration senses that there’s a lot of distancing from Israel going on in the Jewish community, and feels that this paves their way for a new ‘get-tough’ approach to Netanyahu.
Some Jewish power-brokers indeed are perfectly ready to countenance this, and have even counselled so. “We go for Weizman’s approach”, one prominent Jewish leader told me. “Let the Administration knock some heads over there in Israel”.
Indeed, Madeleine Albright’s State Department appears more than willing to exploit the Netanyahu-Jewish rift in calculating the next Mideast peace moves. Over the past month, she has slammed Bibi over the plans to build in Efrat and increasingly blamed him directly for the peace process impasse. This week, Albright even hinted outrageously that Israel is to blame for America’s difficulties in getting together a Gulf coalition against Iraq. Senior officials (Sandy Berger in the White House, Martin Indyk at State) further peddled this canard in The New York Times, and Clinton himself picked up on the refrain too. And oh yes, Clinton has been much too “busy” to see Netanyahu. For Shimon and Leah he had plenty of time.
Through all this, the major Jewish organizations largely have been silent. Hardly a protest. There’ve been perhaps some expressions of concern behind closed doors, but no press releases or “community action alerts”. “The community is shell- shocked by the Reform-Conservative-Orthodox dispute”, candidly admits one of Israel’s top diplomats in the US. “Moreover, this Administration’s top Mideast policy-makers themselves are liberal Jews who go to shul Friday night and take-in the leftist bad-mouthing of Israel that’s in vogue. We’re not sure who our partners are within the Administration in keeping a balanced perspective”.
In addition to the political pressure on Netanyahu that this portends, other effects already are discernable. Cynicism has crept into the Administration’s view of Israeli security concerns, such as responding to the looming threat of Iranian missiles with nuclear-tipped warheads. “Distancing leads to disdain, and from there to disrespect when dealing with us on a range of national security issues”, says another Israeli who deals with the Pentagon and the US military. “This is not a good atmosphere”.
Making my own judgement call, I think the Administration is playing a risky game. Yes, the community’s voice is muted at present because of the denominational recognition dispute — people are confused and questioning — but that’s not alienation. Push too hard, or start blaming Israel unfairly — such as the cheap shot about responsibility for Gulf difficulties — and the community will speak up loudly anew in Israel’s defense, in public and through Congress. “Albright would be foolish to read too much into the ‘Jewish identity’ contraversy. We’ll re-energize if she goes the Bush-Baker route”, warns a leading community executive.
Albright would be well-advised to remember that the fundamentals of the Mideast peace equation haven’t changed. Arafat still has to fight terror; Israel is at an asymmetrical disadvantage in the bargaining process — it gives tangibles for mere Arab commitments; and the Arab rejectionists are still out there and are re-arming.
A parting word to Vice President, and presidential hopeful, Al Gore. Of all people you have an interest in making sure no-one misjudges the current situation. Remember that Jews have begun to vote Republican lately — they supported Guliani overwhelmingly in New York City, for example. Undue Administration pressure on Israel could hurt you the most.