Mideast is Unraveling While Washington Fiddles

Protect a 50-year investment

It is time for a showdown with Israel. With the policy of subsidizing Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is threatening not only the Israeli-Palestinian peace process but also the progress that has been made toward peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors - Egypt, Jordan, and even Syria.

The United States has too much invested in Israel and in the area, going back almost 50 years to the creation of the state of Israel, to allow this to happen without the most strenuous diplomatic efforts. This is separate from, but related to, withdrawal from Hebron.

The West Bank (the territory west of the Jordan River) is home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs and hundreds of Israeli Jews. It was seized by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. The occupation continues in defiance of a 1967 United Nations Security Council resolution urging withdrawal.

At least since the Nixon administration, the United States has advocated a policy of land for peace, whereby Israel would withdraw from parts of the West Bank in return for solid political agreements. This was the foundation of the Oslo plan, which was accepted as the basis for negotiation by the previous Israeli government headed by the martyred Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. But this is precisely what Mr. Netanyahu's Likud Party has so much trouble accepting.

A part of Likud's concern - a part shared by all Israelis - has to do with security. That concern is met by land for peace plus the record of the United States in ensuring that Israel has the best military equipment. At times, it has seemed that the United States was the only friend Israel had. In the United Nations, the US used its veto in the Security Council and its influence in other bodies to ward off the more critical anti-Israeli resolutions.

In all of this, the United States paid a large price - in dollars for foreign aid and in political standing in the Muslim world.

The US got something in return - a strong and reliable ally in a volatile area. Israel showed notable restraint during the Persian Gulf war, and Israel has steadfastly supported unpopular US positions in the UN, sometimes at the cost of being in a lonely minority.

Grown-up with $3 billion a year

Israel is grown-up now. It has its own armaments industry. It has a standard of living in a class with Ireland and Spain. It is still getting about $3 billion a year in foreign aid from the United States. This is more than any other country.

A more troubling Likud concern about the West Bank than security stems from the Orthodox Jewish belief that Jews have a divine and inalienable right to Judea and Samaria, the Biblical terms for the area. A group of rabbis has even called on Israeli soldiers to disobey orders to withdraw.

Netanyahu's record suggests that what he really wants is to satisfy the concerns about both security and divine right by incorporating the West Bank into Israel and to disguise this by giving lip service to peace. He accuses the Palestinians of plotting violence while he himself is doing things to provoke violence. When this self-fulfilling prophecy comes true, Netanyahu will claim vindication even as he surveys the ruins that his policy produced.

Blaming the briefers

So accustomed have the Israelis become to their close relationship with the United States that they find it hard to take American criticism seriously. When President Clinton criticized the subsidies to West Bank settlers, an Israeli official suggested it was the result of a bad briefing by Mr. Clinton's subordinates.

One reason for this Israeli attitude is that Israel has usually been able to rely on its friends in the American Jewish community to use their legendary political clout to reverse any tendencies Washington might have to question Israeli policies. Already the chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations and House International Relations Committees have weighed in with a letter to Netanyahu assuring him of their support.

What Jewish FOBs could do

But, as demonstrated by fund-raising in the recent election, Clinton also has friends in the American Jewish community. They are not without influence in Israel, as well as in Washington. And they have perhaps the greatest investment, both emotional and financial, in Israel's success. They could now render a great service to Israel, to the United States, and above all to the cause of peace by urging a change of policy on Israel.

Political accommodation between Israel and its neighbors will bring trade and social intercourse. These will create vested interests in peace. That is the path to real security.

Something else needs to be made clear. The United States cannot allow its foreign policy to be hostage to doctrinaire religious extremism, whether from conservative Orthodox Jews, Islamic fundamentalists, or evangelical Christians.

Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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