THE US decision to criticize Israel in the United Nations Security Council this week for ``excessive'' use of force in the Oct. 8 killing of 19 Palestinians in East Jerusalem marks a significant shift in the usual American stance. In the past the United States has vetoed or abstained from most Council resolutions critical of Israel.
The choice was strategic. The US opted to take the lead, offering its own condemnatory resolution, rather than facing the possibility of having to vote down or abstain from voting on a harsher Arab proposal.
At presstime, the Council was still deadlocked on reaching an acceptable compromise version. A measure backed by the Palestine Liberation Organization is more sharply critical of Israel and seeks a role for the UN in administration of he occupied territories.
The US decision to criticize Israel was prompted both by the gravity of the incident and the need to firm up ties with Arab allies in the large coalition opposing Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Many of them view Israel as more the enemy than Iraq, a point Iraqi President Saddam Hussein constantly tries to spotlight. Many Arabs are also frustrated that the Palestinian question has remained unresolved for so long.
``I think if the US had not taken a firm stand there would have been a very great rumbling among the Arabs who have been supporting us,'' says Hermann Eilts, former US Ambassador to Egypt and Saudi Arabia and chairman of the Boston University Center for International Studies. ``For those Arabs in the coalition, including the Saudis, I think the US move has helped a great deal.''
The US criticism of Israel follows passage of eight strong Security Council resolutions against Iraq within the last two months.
``I think for the US to take such a strong initiative and to show so much concern on the set of issues with Iraq and then to appear to be completely dragging its feet on the other [the Arab-Israeli issue] would have been a problem,'' says Edward Luck, president of the United Nations Association of the USA. ``The US needs to be concerned about violence wherever it occurs in the region.... One can't be a leader in the international community and sit back and allow others to take the initiative. One has to go out and try to shape the agenda and build coalitions.''
Israel, which contends the police action against the Palestinians was in self-defense, has started its own investigation. Officials of the American Jewish Congress in the US quickly charged that Washington was caving in to political pressure from new Arab allies, including, they said, terrorists and human rights violators. A number of Middle East analysts, however, insist that the US-Israeli relationship is solid enough to withstand current strains.
Arab-American leaders stressed in conversations with both the State Department and the White House this week that long-range solutions to broad Middle East problems require more consistent application of the principles of international law.
``I think our Arab allies made it very clear that they feel the two odd men out in the region are [Israeli Prime Minister] Shamir and [Iraqi President] Saddam,'' says James Zogby, executive director of the Arab-American Institute. ``The choice for the US was to go on with business as usual or deal with the emerging consensus that wants to see a different shape to the region.''
Saddam has repeatedly tried to link the Arab-Israeli problem and that of his takeover of Kuwait. President Bush insists the circumstances differ.
``There is no relationship.'' he says.
``These are two distinct crises with separate solutions, separate negotiations, and different partners,'' agrees Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist with the Brookings Institution. ``But the Middle East is a mosaic. When you move one piece every other piece moves.... Naturally, all parties have an interest in all other parties' conflicts.''
Most analysts say the Arab-Israeli problem can only be resolved once the Iraq crisis has ended. ``I don't think we can handle two situations of this sort at once,'' says Ambassador Eilts. However, some analysts, including Mr. Luck, see the current US criticism of Israel as an indication of a more even-handed approach, one that is more sensitive to Arab concerns and which strengthens the US position as a broker in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Luck says recent improvements in Soviet relations with Israel also strengthen Moscow's prospects for becoming a broker acceptable to Israel.
The Iraqi and the Palestinian issues, says Luck, have provided the UN with a ``period of testing'' to see if it can position itself to make a ``major'' difference in brining about peace in the 1990s.