Israelis Are Divided on Meaning Of Growing Rift in US-Israel Ties

`IT is almost impossible for Israel to do anything to satisfy the US administration, which has set out to do almost everything to antagonize the interests of the state of Israel."

Israeli Health Minister Ehud Olmert's bitter tirade against Washington, delivered recently to a group of visiting American Jews, could not have expressed more succinctly the deep frustration and disappointment with United States policy that pervades the Israeli government.

And it was tinged with a note of despair over whether anything can be done now to restore US-Israeli relations to their former luster.

Officials here are generally reluctant to acknowledge any definitive turning point in relations, even after a week in which Israel lost its battle for US loan guarantees and the US press was full of leaked State Department reports that Israel may have illegally sold US weapons technology to China and South Africa. (US view, Page 3.)

Instead, they hold to their convictions that the two countries share enough common goals to hold their alliance firm in the long run.

"I am a great believer in the permanence of interests," says Eliahu Ben Elizar, chairman of the parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Other observers, however, feel that Washington's insistence that Israel freeze Jewish settlements in the occupied territories in return for the loan guarantees is symptomatic of a sea change in America's view of Israel.

"We have definitely reached a turning point," argues Gabriel Sheffer, an expert in US-Israeli relations at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

"Even if the Democrats win the next elections, our relations with the Americans are never going to be the way they used to be."

Within the government, too, there are fears that the loan-guarantee debacle signals that Washington is no longer prepared to keep meeting Israel's requests for financial assistance while at the same time allowing the Jewish state to pursue policies, such as settlement activity, that run counter to US interests.

"There was a looking the other way on the part of the Americans which appears to be over," acknowledges one source. "It could be a turning point."

Professor Sheffer sees many factors contributing to the deterioration in US-Israeli ties, including American Jews' growing apathy toward Israel, a trend toward isolationism in US public opinion, and recent scandals involving Jonathan Pollard, who spied on the US for Israel, and Brig. Gen. Rami Dotan, who diverted US military aid to Israel into his own pockets.

Washington's concern to appear evenhanded as it steers Israelis and Arabs through the treacherous waters of Middle East peace talks is also clearly influencing the US administration's attitude.

That has come as a shock to Israeli officials. "The feeling is that they used to have a special relationship with America, and now they are having to fight just to make sure it is an honest broker," says Ronald Kronish, director of the Jerusalem office of the American Jewish Committee.

NOR does the Israeli government feel that the US attitude will help the peace process. "The Arabs see the weakening of US-Israeli ties as encouragement not to give up anything to Israel, and this is dangerous to the peace process," says one source.

"A nervous Israel, not confident about its relations with the United States, will be unwilling to take political or military risks in the peace process," adds Harry Wall, the local representative of the Anti-Defamation League, a US-based Jewish civil rights group.

Such warnings that US policy could backfire are matched by suggestions that if Washington wants to see opposition Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin replace Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in June's elections - as is widely believed here - its current pressure will not help.

"The Israeli public is not coming away from this week feeling that it has a clear choice between settlements and the loan guarantees," Mr. Wall says. "It feels rather that we have been the target of a volley of cheap shots."

Nonetheless, Wall adds, that volley suggests "the ground rules have changed" in US-Israeli relations. "For the first time, there is political legitimacy to using US aid as a sanction," Sheffer adds. "Everything points to a separation between the two states - not a divorce, but growing alienation and separation. The warmth has gone."

Some officials say a chill is to be expected.

"It happens that there are differences of opinion that become deeper," Mr. Ben Elizar argues. "It is not easy to have such a long romance and always keep it at a peak.

"Any responsible US decisionmakers with a choice between basing long-term policy on Iran or Iraq or on any of the other dictatorships in the region, and basing it on Israel, they will try to find an equilibrium but in the end they will trust Israel," he adds.

Even so, counters Mr. Kronish, "if things continue like this, they could be leading to a real watershed, and real change. It's not a rupture yet, but it is a very serious strain."

"There is a combination of factors that are not in our favor at the moment," says Danny Halpern, a former Washington-based Israeli diplomat, "and each of them is probably reversible. But each low point [in the relationship] is harder to reverse than the one before."

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