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Israelis Fear Loss of Unfettered American Support

By John M. Goshko
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

President Bush's insistence that Israel's request for U.S. loan guarantees be linked to a freeze on Jewish settlements in occupied territories has raised fears among Israel's supporters about whether it can continue to count on virtually unfettered access to U.S. financial and military aid.

Over the past month, senior Israeli officials have warned privately that the Israeli public could abandon the quest for peace and retreat into a fortress mentality if it becomes convinced that U.S. support is wavering. The Israeli press has been openly vocal in questioning the firmness of the U.S. commitment.

In this country, almost all American Jewish organizations and Israel's supporters in Congress have expressed concern about what they see as a linkage between aid for a humanitarian purpose -- helping to resettle immigrants to Israel -- and a political-policy dispute.

"I have very great doubts about the wisdom of using humanitarian aid to force Israel to accept our political position on this issue," Sen. Robert W. Kasten Jr., R-Wis., ranking minority member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee dealing with foreign aid, told Secretary of State James A. Baker III at a recent hearing.

"There may be divisions in the American Jewish community about whether Israel should continue to build settlements, but the community is totally united on the need for granting these guarantees," Shoshona S. Cardin, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told Baker last week. "In pursuing its political objective, the administration seems to have lost sight of the humanitarian issues -- that the futures of thousands of men, women and children are jeopardized by this linkage."

In recent days, U.S. officials have sought to minimize the idea that a fundamental change is taking place in the relationship that makes Israel the largest recipient of U.S. assistance. Its combined annual aid -- running at $3 billion for the past several years -- accounts for almost one-fourth of the total U.S. foreign aid budget.

U.S. officials stressed that despite the loan-guarantees dispute, no one expects that situation to change. In addition, the officials said, the loan guarantees are just one strand in a larger web of recent U.S.-Israeli relations that has included important U.S. roles in launching the current Middle East peace process, inducing the United Nations to repeal its resolution equating Zionism with racism, persuading Russia to renew diplomatic relations with Israel after a 24-year lapse and helping to airlift 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

Still, the impasse involves issues that have not figured seriously in the relationship since the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, when Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt.

Then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower used the threat of a U.S. aid cutoff to force an Israeli withdrawal. Now, the Bush administration has said that unless Israel stops building settlements, the United States will not act as cosigner for the $10 billion in loans Israel needs to help absorb hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The unyielding U.S. stance has stirred great anxiety among Israelis and American Jews that the United States, as part of its post-Cold War reordering of priorities, intends to use its leverage as Israel's principal patron to force the Jewish state to accept a peace agreement involving the return of these territories -- the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights -- to Arab control.

Spurring that fear is the assumption that Bush and Baker regard Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's insistence that the territories are part of Israel as a barrier to such an agreement. That has prompted speculation that the administration really is using the loan guarantees to try to defeat Shamir in Israel's upcoming national elections and held elect a government more amenable to halting settlements.

Sources on both sides acknowledge privately that there is a lack of empathy between the two governments bordering on active dislike. Bush and Baker believe Shamir has deceived them about past settlement activity and are no longer willing to accept his word about the purpose and extent of future construction. Shamir feels inadequately rewarded for the political risk he took last year when he kept Israel out of the Persian Gulf War.

While it is no secret that U.S. policy makers would be happier dealing with Shamir's opposition rival, Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin, they deny vehemently that they are trying to influence the Israeli election. They say that such a course is likely to cause resentment among Israeli voters and cause them to vote for Shamir and his Likud bloc.

Instead, U.S. officials led by Baker have insisted repeatedly that the linkage stems solely from Bush's conviction that the settlements are an obstacle to peace and should be halted pending agreement on the final status of the territories. Moreover, they note, every U.S. administration since 1967 when Israel captured the territories in the Middle East War has taken essentially the same position.

Bush shares the view, articulated in one way or another by all U.S. presidents since 1967, that a comprehensive Middle East peace should be based on Israel's return to its pre-1967 borders, with some territorial adjustments to safeguard its strategic position.

"If the peace process is to go anywhere, it must address the issues impeding a peace agreement, and the settlements are in that category," a senior U.S. official said.