News Analysis: Dilemma stems from chilled U.S.-Israel relations: American Jews split over Clinton pr

WASHINGTON — As the Clinton administration steps up its pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, American Jewish groups find themselves facing a dilemma:

Should they openly criticize the seeming heavy-handedness of Clinton, who has traditionally been an ally of Israel, or should they remain quiet, waiting to see what happens?

So far, the second approach has prevailed. Although some U.S. Jews have applauded Clinton's recent words and even called for stronger ones, most Jewish groups have continued to meet the chilled U.S.-Israel relations with comparative silence.

The muted Jewish response can be explained as much by what is seen as the president's positive record on Israel as it can by a growing dissatisfaction in the American Jewish community over the stalled peace process.

Except for some criticism of Clinton for blaming Israel for the United States' inability to hold the Gulf War coalition together in the latest crisis with Iraq, Jewish groups for the most part have adopted a wait-and-see attitude and are giving Clinton room to work.

The president is clearly counting on his reservoir of good will in the Jewish community as he pursues an aggressive effort to prod the Israeli government to take a bold step in negotiations with the Palestinians.

"The administration is testing the waters on pressure," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

In addition to withholding a meeting with Netanyahu until there is progress in the peace talks, Clinton administration officials have threatened by the end of December to publicly air their differences with Israeli policy unless progress is made.

State Department officials said the United States would publicly call on Israel to cede West Bank territory to create a "viable Palestinian entity" and to halt all settlement construction.

Prior to then, however, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will try to push forward the peace process by holding back-to-back meetings in Europe with Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. She'll meet with Netanyahu today in Paris, and tomorrow she'll speak with Arafat in Geneva.

Albright's timing coincides with recent strong verbal rhetoric between the two sides.

In a CNN interview last week, Netanyahu used uncharacteristically blunt and equally undiplomatic language to lambaste Clinton for engaging in "unbecoming" conduct for not scheduling a meeting with him when the prime minister was in the United States last month.

"The entire Jewish state feels humiliated if such action is directed against us," Netanyahu said in the interview.

Arafat added flames to the fire during a joint news conference Tuesday with Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul Salam al-Majali. During the conference, Arafat reacted sharply to a statement made by Netanyahu a day earlier — that Israel would annex the Jordan Valley and other areas of the West Bank if Arafat unilaterally declared a Palestinian state.

"Let it be clear to all that the state of Palestine exists," Arafat said, adding that eastern Jerusalem would serve as its capital.

The U.S. State Department called for a time-out Tuesday from the latest exchange, telling both Israel and the Palestinians there was more to be gained from negotiations than proclaiming unilateral steps they would take if talks fail.

Amid such turmoil, Jewish organizations are clearly preoccupied with how to respond to the administration's handling of the situation.

A conference call among Jewish groups last week was followed Monday night by a two-hour night meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The discussion included a plea from Dore Gold, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, who called on the conference to express solidarity with the Israeli government.

But the umbrella group, seen as the organized Jewish community's main liaison with the administration, decided to send a letter to Clinton that would not explicitly criticize the president's pressure on Israel.

While some right-of-center groups such as the Zionist Organization of America and the Orthodox Union urged the Conference of Presidents to speak out against Clinton's shift in strategy, many participants in the Monday meeting said a consensus emerged that Clinton has not crossed "the line."

A conference leader told the group that knowing when pressure has become too much is like the judicial argument of defining pornography — "We'll know it when we see it," a source said.

The letter to Clinton, which sparked debate among conference members and was expected to be finalized later this week, was likely to call for strong U.S.-Israel relations and reciprocity in the Israeli and Palestinian commitments to the peace process.

Some Jewish officials said the decision not to directly criticize the president was due in part to Clinton's record on Israel during his past five years in office.

"There remains a pretty strong faith in this administration, but faith does not mean blind support," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

"The starting point is different than the Bush-Baker years," when the Jewish community was quick to attack the White House, Harris said. At that time, Bush, angered by the Israelis' settlement policies, delayed loan guarantees to the Jewish state.

Most believe Clinton, regardless of policy differences with Israel, would not withhold economic, military or intelligence support — moves certain to draw the wrath of most Jewish organizations.

Many Jewish officials who support the Oslo peace process said privately that Netanyahu's failure to move the peace process forward has led to an erosion of support for him.

In fact, some said they support Clinton's efforts to push Netanyahu.

Reform Jewish leaders tried to paint the Jewish community's response as an outgrowth of the battle over religious pluralism in Israel.

The decision to give Clinton some leeway is "an example of the lack of confidence that much of American Jewry and its establishment has with this prime minister and his government's policies," said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

But opponents of the Oslo peace process argue that the Clinton administration should be strongly criticized.

"We would be derelict in our duty if we do not condemn Clinton," said Morton Klein, president of the ZOA.

Klein blamed the decision to withhold criticism on "the fact that much of the leadership is not acutely aware of Arafat's behavior and the great dangers facing Israel."

In addition, Klein said, "Because the vast majority of the Jewish community is Democratic, they are much more reluctant to confront a Democratic president."

Klein found an unusual ally when the usually left-leaning American Jewish Congress called Clinton's unilateral pressure on Netanyahu "bad tactics and bad strategy."

"It may well be that Israel's response to the peace process has been inadequate," the AJCongress said in a statement last week, but "there has to be more to U.S. diplomacy than mere insistence that Israel yield territory and stop settlements."

B'nai B'rith planned to send its own letter expressing disappointment over Clinton's "undue pressure" on Israel.

For its part, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, believes that "the pressure school is counterproductive."