BRIDGTON, MAINE — When it comes to critiquing Washington's policy in the Middle East, most of the United States press resemble the Egyptian media. The latter marches in lock step behind the Cairo regime; the Americans hum the Washington tune - as long as it is whistled by Israel.
Contrast US commentators on other foreign issues: Unity of opinion doesn't exist on, say, China, Cuba, or Kosovo. How many divergent judgments on Arab-Israel questions, Iraq, or Iran have you read?
While most reporters adequately describe developments, an interpretation gap persists between newsroom and editorial writers.
When Syria insisted that Israel return all of the occupied Golan Heights, the Clinton administration condemned Damascus for failing to show flexibility in making a deal with Israel. The press hummed in agreement.
When President Clinton praised Israel for flexibility on Jerusalem at Camp David, US commentators chanted a litany of support.
Why is this so? Why is Washington widely regarded by Middle Easterners and Europeans as heavily biased in support of Israel?
There are two reasons.
First and foremost is the power - financial and political - of the Israel lobby. Read what previous policymakers have had to say:
*President Jimmy Carter: "President Sadat repeatedly asks me to exercise major pressure on Israel, but I simply cannot do it because it would be a personal political suicide for me."
*Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Carter national security adviser: "Kissinger had told me that we should be prepared for a massive onslaught from the Jewish community, something that he said he had experienced himself."
*Robert McFarlane, a Reagan national security adviser: "We were being exploited by a PM [Begin] who seemed to believe that Israel's vital interest had to be secured without taking the President of the US into account, and that whatever they needed from the US could be secured through the exercise of their influence on the US Congress."
*Reuven Frank, former president of NBC, on American TV's graphic 1982 reporting of Israel's invasion of Lebanon: "Israel's powerful and experienced American friends rose up in wrath against the media, especially television, and most especially NBC."
Any writer or official who criticizes Israel harshly may be damned an "anti-Semite," a poisonous charge that destroys careers. Far easier to go along, particularly when the wide American public has lost interest in the never-ending problem.
The second reason for the heavy Israel bias is that history doesn't figure.
On the question of Jerusalem, does it matter that US policy was once quite different?
After Israel seized East Jerusalem in 1967, America's UN ambassador, Arthur Goldberg, declared it occupied territory. Washington then stated occupied lands should be returned in exchange for peace.
Israeli settlements in the occupied areas were described by Washington as "obstacles to peace and illegal under international law."
Israel illegally extended Jerusalem's municipal boundaries into the West Bank - and offered at Camp David to return part of that land, but not occupied East Jerusalem. Palestinians did not seek the return of West Jerusalem from which they were expelled in 1948.
Virtually every country has refused to move its embassy to Jerusalem, consistent with international law and the protection of lives and property in the region.
Mr. Clinton may do so. Would Jewish votes obtained in New York for Hillary outweigh the damage to American interests?
Plainly, no lasting peace will come from a deal brokered by an administration so cozy with Israel. We could return to warfare and even-higher oil prices.
So what is to be done?
The only hope is citizen power.
Ordinary Americans must work for two objectives:
First, true campaign finance reform. Only when special-interest money is taken out of politics will US foreign policy - like the domestic agenda - become free of improper pressures.
Second, a phased but total end to aid to all the participants in the Arab-Israel conflict - $3 billion for Israel, $2 billion for Egypt, lesser amounts for lesser players.
Not only would we free up money for people who really need it - Israel is richer than some European states and many American communities - but it would remove the cushion and shield that has enabled the recipients to avoid harsh realities.
Egypt would have to provide political freedom and reform a statist economy. Israel would have to learn to live with its neighbors.
So sit down and write your representatives and local newspaper to halt the flow of money into Washington and out of the US.
*Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service officer, specialized in Egyptian, Iranian, and Arab-Israel affairs during his career, 1962-87.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society