U.S. Jews shouldnt impede countrys peacemaking

At times like these, when violence flares and the barrage of events in the Middle East starts to feel overwhelming, it can be difficult to maintain perspective. Quite understandably, many of us long for easy answers to complex problems and we search for someone or something to blame.

Predictably, there were those who immediately pointed their fingers at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when the current tensions first began. Others quickly blamed Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat for his failure to prevent terror.

But some supporters of Israel have also branded the U.S. government as the culprit, and that is very troubling:

*A few weeks ago, the director of a leading American Jewish group was heard equating President Clinton's repeated criticism of Israel over the Har Homa housing project with President Bush's refusal six years ago to grant Israel loan guarantees.

*Another Jewish leader even suggested that by acknowledging America's displeasure with the Har Homa decision at a joint news conference with Arafat, President Clinton had empowered the Palestinian chief to return to his old ways and resort to violence.

*A number of organizations attempted to launch a grassroots effort in opposition to American participation in Arafat's mid-March conference in Gaza and, in general, to protest public American disagreements with Israel.

This censure of the United States is not only hasty and short-sighted; it is also very dangerous.

Most American Jews understand that the United States plays a critical role in facilitating or mediating the Middle East peace process — and recognize that public disagreements and even criticism are to be expected. But the perception of what the American Jewish community believes is often set by the actions of its leaders. If their view of what the U.S. government should be doing is perceived as too rigid, they could limit America's flexibility in the negotiating process. And that could seriously hurt Israel.

To be sure, the United States could have done some things differently, and better. Greater consideration ought to have been given to seeking a postponement of the Gaza summit hosted by Arafat, particularly in view of the profound emotions and deep pain being felt in Israel after the massacre of Israeli schoolchildren by a Jordanian soldier. And the State Department was wrong when it temporarily began to exclusively use the Arabic name, Jabal Abu-Ghneim and not the Hebrew, Har Homa. That decision should be reversed. Using the former rather than the latter was more than a semantic issue because of the importance of avoiding actions that presuppose the outcome of negotiations.

It was appropriate and wise to register grievances in both these cases. But, as one Israeli diplomat observed, "These were not issues that need campaigns." Among other reasons, this well-seasoned diplomat knows how important it is for American Jews to use their political power in a timely and judicious fashion. We will be of little help to Israel if we become "the community that cried wolf."

At times, the complaints against U.S. actions made it seem as if America was engaged in a one-sided Israel-bashing crusade. It was as if the United States hadn't vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution on Har Homa, the only country to vote with Israel in the General Assembly; as if President Clinton had questioned Israel's rights in Jerusalem, rather than limiting his criticism to the timing and the effect of the Har Homa decision; and as if the United States had participated in the Gaza meeting to send an anti-Israel message. In fact, it was the United States that opposed efforts in Gaza to set up an alternative "mechanism" for guaranteeing implementation of the Oslo accords.

Even more worrisome is the seemingly automatic way in which some assume that American criticism of Israel is necessarily harmful to the Jewish state.

The notion of American evenhandedness is considered a threat, rather than an advantage. Most of Israel's supporters here are heartened by the fact that the United States — the country best able and most willing to help resolve the Israeli-Arab dispute — is also Israel's closest friend. But some U.S. Jews erroneously think that America's active role in the Mideast peace process should be sacrificed for the sake of the Israeli-American friendship.

These supporters of Israel misjudge America's own long-term interests in the region and, whether knowingly or not, they are also endangering Israel's security and welfare.

As the Clinton administration tries to strike a balance between America's special relationship with Israel and the U.S. role as facilitator-mediator in the peace process, the U.S.-Israel relationship has understandably been strained. But lest we forget, the United States has a great responsibility to provide overall perspective in the process — to help prevent violence, build bridges and keep the negotiations on track.

The United States is the only outside party with the ability to keep Israelis and Arabs at the table. If American Jews overly circumscribe that ability, it is Israel that will suffer the most.