Israelis Are Split on US Election

Level of foreign policy activism frames the debate in Israel over presidential campaign

AS Israelis watch the United States presidential campaign unfold, their feelings about the outcome offer yet another illustration of how the particularities of Middle East politics can transcend normal logic.

Members of the right-wing opposition Likud Party are, in general, backing not the conservative Republican candidacy of President Bush, as one might expect, but his Democratic rival, Gov. Bill Clinton. And the left-leaning Laborites in government are quietly hoping that Mr. Bush will manage to win reelection.

Though government officials, wary of the outcome of the Nov. 3 vote, will not comment publicly on the US presidential race, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin "is betting on Bush, no doubt about it," says Gabi Sheffer, an expert on US-Israeli relations at Hebrew University.

To some extent, that preference derives from Mr. Rabin's familiarity with Bush and his former secretary of state, James Baker III, who engineered the current Middle East peace process, while the Arkansas governor is an unknown quantity. `Smooth sailing'

Though Mr. Clinton has gone out of his way to make statements sympathetic to Israel, "they are still only statements," says Susan Hattis Rolef, editor of the Labor Party magazine Spectrum.

"From Bush, this government has got the loan guarantees," she adds, "and it is smooth sailing."

At the same time, there is a widespread feeling among Israeli politicians and analysts across the political spectrum that by denying $10 billion in loan guarantees for immigrant absorption to former Premier Yitzhak Shamir, and cooling US-Israeli relations, the Bush administration deliberately contributed to the Likud's defeat in elections last June.

"The Americans did not hide that they wanted Rabin elected, and they did their utmost to help him," Dr. Sheffer says. Rabin's reciprocal support for Bush, he suggests - evidenced in part by Israel's low-key protests about the planned US sale of F-15 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia - "is part of the implicit deal. There is a personal, political commitment."

The perception that Bush helped Rabin defeat Mr. Shamir also explains the deep resentment that many Likud politicians hold against the US president.

"He was involved up to his neck in Israeli politics to pull down Shamir," complains Likud parliament member Ron Nahman, and as he crafted the current peace process, "Baker used pressure on Israel when he didn't have to. I don't think Clinton and [vice-presidential candidate Sen. Al] Gore would do the same thing.

"I vote for Clinton," says Mr. Nahman, also the mayor of the West Bank settlement of Ariel.

Bush's foreign policy activism and his readiness to put pressure on Israel might prove a problem for the Israeli government in the future. If negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians reached critical and delicate junctures at some stage, Israelis expect that Bush's large investment in Middle East peace would lead him to exert pressure for concessions.

At the moment, however, says Harry Wall, local director of the Jewish American Anti-Defamation League, "The Israeli political elite, dominated by Labor, would prefer to see an executive in the White House who takes a strong interest in foreign affairs. After all, that is how we got where we are today" in the peace process.

At the same time, adds Zeev Chafets, a commentator for the magazine Jerusalem Report, the complexity of current world affairs "makes this a poor time for a US president to get on-the-job training" in foreign policy.

"It is anomalous that many professionals here prefer a president who might be tougher on Israel, but who would be better across the board," which is how Bush is seen, Mr. Chafets adds.

Few political analysts here believe a Clinton victory in November would bring any substantial change in US Middle East policy, which has remained fundamentally the same under both Democratic and Republican administrations for many years.

"He might show a little more sympathy to Israel, but he wouldn't change anything basic," predicts Sheffer.

But if he made domestic economic and social affairs his top priority, as his campaign rhetoric has indicated, Clinton would be less likely to pay close attention to Israeli attitudes in peace negotiations - a hands-off approach that Likud leaders, never enthusiastic about the peace process, would appreciate.

"There is nothing to suggest that Clinton would impose his views," Mr. Wall says. "There is everything to suggest that Bush and Baker would." Little public interest

For a country whose fate is so closely tied to the direction of US policy, and which depends so heavily on US aid for its economic well being, the Israeli public and media have shown little interest in the US presidential campaign.

It is not only that they are preoccupied with more immediate issues, such as the talks with Israel's Arab neighbors or economic concerns, suggests Chafets.

"Rabin's approach ensures that we are going to have pretty good relations with whoever is president of the United States," he says. "That means people here are more relaxed about it."

The same outlook prevails in government circles, according to Ms. Hattis Rolef of Spectrum.

"I don't think the government will go into mourning if Clinton wins," she says. "But at the same time, Rabin knows what Bush and Baker are playing, they know the game. The peace process is on the right track, and we have no major problems with the American administration. I think Rabin would be more comfortable with Bush."

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