Newt at the Knesset - Pandering or Peacemaking?

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, along with several colleagues from both parties, has been in Israel encouraging the government there to resist his country's foreign policy.

The spectacle of a government at war with itself is commonplace in the United States (our government was designed to produce this result), but our arguments with ourselves have usually been confined to the US. During the height of the quarrel between Congress and the White House over Vietnam, no members of Congress went to Hanoi to cheer up the North Vietnamese.

Yet now we have the Speaker of the House, in a speech to the Israeli Knesset and contrary to US policy, recognizing Jerusalem "as the united and eternal capital of Israel." At a news conference, the Speaker accused President Clinton of blackmailing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on behalf of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. A few weeks ago in Washington, Mr. Gingrich accused Secretary of State Madeleine Albright of acting like an "agent for the Palestinians." On other occasions, the Speaker and his colleagues have assured the Israelis that they would be supported by Congress in any showdown with the Clinton administration.

Concern over the appropriate limits in relations between American citizens and foreign governments is virtually as old as the Republic. In 1799, Congress passed the Logan Act which provides:

"Any citizen of the United States ... who ... carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government ... with intent to influence [its] measures or conduct ... in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined ... or imprisoned not more than three years, or both."

There has never been a criminal prosecution under the Logan Act. There is not likely to be one now, though Speaker Gingrich and his friends are testing the limits of responsible political behavior, if not of the law.

Actually, to members of Congress it may look more like smart political behavior. It bears all the earmarks of shameless pandering to the American Jewish community. What view this community eventually takes of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is of concern also to Clinton, who is strongly averse to offending interest groups (compare, for example, his policies toward Cuba and Cuban-Americans).

It is not only the American government that is at war with itself over the peace process. So, too, is the Israeli government. Mr. Netanyahu's intransigence stems from two factors. He's personally opposed to the framework of negotiations with the Palestinians to begin with; and his tenure in office is dependent on support from a handful of ultraconservative members of the Knesset who are even more intransigent than he is.

The framework of the peace process was already in place when Netanyahu became prime minister, and he could scarcely afford not to continue it. But he changed its terms. He has constantly demanded that the Palestinians do more to stamp out terrorism at the same time he has pursued policies (such as expanding Jewish settlements) that provoke more terrorism. This is a recipe for failure, which is probably what Netanyahu wants. Is it also what American Jews want, or do they see the problem differently?

The unspeakable tragedy and suffering out of which the state of Israel was born inspired deep, unquestioning (and sometimes unreasoning) emotional support - and not only among Jews. What also has to be taken into account is that the establishment of Israel generated equally deep emotions, albeit of anger and resentment, among the Palestinians who were displaced from their homes and their land to make room for the Jews.

One of the so far unsurmountable difficulties is that neither most Jews nor most Palestinians are willing to admit that the other side has also suffered legitimate grievances. If either group could see their dispute through the eyes of the other, the peace process would take a giant leap forward.

Some Israelis have started down this road. After all, it was an Israeli government of a different political orientation that brought the peace process to where Netanyahu found it. Just the other day, Israeli peace advocates, no friends of Netanyahu, joined Palestinians in demonstrating against Jewish housing in the Muslim sector of Jerusalem.

What is desperately needed now is a change of heart by the Israeli government, either the one currently in power or one formed following an election.

This change of heart will not be induced by talk such as has been coming from Speaker Gingrich.

The American Jewish community has the clout to influence Israeli, as well as American, politics. There will never be a better time than now for them to use it.

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

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