News analysis: U.S.-Israel tensions-Will they heat up

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NEW YORK — Does Benjamin Netanyahu's hard line on Palestinian nationalism and the peace process signal a return to U.S.-Israel tensions?

Or is it merely a negotiating gambit?

Centrist Jewish organizations that backed the peace pursued by Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres said it's simply too soon to determine whether the tensions will regress to the bad old days of Yitzhak Shamir and George Bush.

Others long uncomfortable with the course of the Rabin-Peres peace policies were delighted to have Netanyahu unapologetically holding the Palestinian Authority accountable at every opportunity.

The "central difference between this and the previous government," contended Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America who had railed against the Rabin-Peres peace approach, is that the current prime minister has "absolutely won over the hearts and minds of American Jewry" — as well as members of Congress.

"Rather than not paying attention to [Yasser] Arafat's violations of the peace accords, his administration will make it a central theme for achieving a real and durable peace," said Klein.

The U.S. administration, he added, "will move in the direction of understanding [that] the positions of the present government are reasonable, rational and appropriate."

Discussing the Palestinians during his visit to the United States earlier this month, Netanyahu's watchword was "reciprocity." His government would honor Israel's commitments in the self-rule accords to the degree that the Palestinians honored theirs, he said.

Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of systematically failing to comply with the Oslo Accords, especially in curbing terrorism and conducting political activity in Jerusalem, and charged that such failures no longer will be tolerated.

On his return to Israel, the prime minister ordered the Palestinian Authority to shut down its East Jerusalem headquarters, Orient House.

It was left to President Clinton to assuage the alarm Netanyahu's visit sowed in Arab quarters, perhaps most dramatically reflected in Qatar's decision to cancel its plans to open a trade office in Israel.

Clinton penned letters to Palestinian Authority President Arafat and other Arab leaders, reassuring them that Washington remains committed to the principles on which the Middle East peace process was founded, including that of land for peace.

When asked to cite the high points of his meeting with Clinton, Netanyahu said they had reached an understanding that decisions affecting Israeli security "must be made by the state of Israel and by no one else" and that "no one will drive a wedge between Israel and the United States."

Without gleaning new insight into what specific policies Netanyahu would pursue, centrist Jewish organizations strove to put the most positive spin on the visit — all the while girding for rough spots that may lie ahead.

"The new Israeli prime minister appears off to a promising start," Phil Baum, American Jewish Congress executive director, said in a statement. "Everything now depends on how he implements these policies."

He also predicted that there "will be differences" between Israel and the United States as in the past.

"One can only hope they will be dealt with in an atmosphere of conciliation and mutual understanding," he said, "just as occurred in the past."

For David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, a key challenge for Netanyahu will be to ignite the passion and allegiance of the "broad swath" of centrist American Jewry for the occasional tense moments he is certain will erupt.

Netanyahu made "a very good start" in building that support on the visit, said Harris, due in part to the "package of his youthful vigor and communication skills."

The effort "remains a work in progress," he added.

Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, said that even after the visit "it is premature to draw conclusions" about Netanyahu's direction, but that the Jewish community remains predisposed to support him.

American Jews hope for a "strong close partnership between the Netanyahu government and the administration," he said. After all, "times of tension on a governmental level are times of discomfort within the Jewish community."

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said "most American Jews thirst for an articulate exponent of Israel and her positions, anxieties and fears."

And Netanyahu, Foxman added, "speaks American English, knows American values and all this makes American Jews feel proud of him. They are with him even if they are not supportive of details of his program, which he hasn't spelled out yet."

Still, ideological strains among American Jews that have emerged in recent years over the peace process surfaced again at some of Netanyahu's appearances.

Loud hissing greeted Gary Rubin, the executive director of Americans for Peace Now, when he identified himself before asking a question at a large gathering sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Even louder applause greeted Netanyahu when he responded to Rubin's question by saying that his challenge was to deal with "the national aspirations of the Jews, not [of] the Palestinians."

Netanyahu said he would tell the Palestinians, "You can run every aspect of your lives" but Israel will not yield key powers of sovereignty, including the control of borders and the formation of armies.

"I'm looking for a solution for them to run their affairs but one that will enable us to stay alive," Netanyahu said.

While that is "a cogent position," said one centrist Jewish insider who asked not to be named, "the problem is the genie has left the bottle."

"Having had their expectations whetted, the Palestinians are not prepared to return to status quo ante," he said.

In fact, Netanyahu seemed headed toward some compromise: Israel announced Tuesday it would ease the 19-week-old closure of the territories, citing the suffering of Palestinians blocked from working in Israel.

Netanyahu was also expected to offer Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak a more prominent role in the peace process during a meeting in Cairo this week. The move was seen as an Israeli bid to dampen the current confrontational mood between Arab states and Israel since the May 29 Israeli election.

In a flurry of diplomatic activity beforehand, Netanyahu dispatched his foreign policy adviser, Dore Gold, to meet Arafat — but Arafat snubbed Gold and sent his No. 2, Mahmoud Abbas, instead.

In the meantime, Netanyahu may finally have clarified his course on another issue of intense concern to many American Jews — the status of non-Orthodox religious movements in Israel.

In several U.S. venues he pledged not to change Israel's religious "status quo," apparently implying that legal gains made in recent years by the Reform and Conservative movements would be protected.

But at a briefing with Jewish media, he acknowledged that his government's approach would be a "disappointment to some who would like to see Israel adopt the norms and patterns of the American community."

To do otherwise would inflame tensions that Israel could not afford, he said, referring to the intense pressures he faces from his Orthodox coalition partners.

At the same time, Netanyahu underscored his commitment to a strong and enduring relationship with diaspora Jews. Despite Israel's vibrant economy and his pursuit of international investment, he said, Jewish philanthropy to Israel remains "indispensable" in preserving the "network of Jewish identity and solidarity."