Israeli nationalists softening, AIPAC head says in S.F.

Even some of the most ardent nationalists within Israel's Likud-led government are slowly revising their longtime principle against relinquishing any of the Israeli-held territories.

"This has been going on in kind of dribs and drabs, if you will, over the course of the last several months. But it has actually accelerated over the course of the last month."

Kohr, who came to the Bay Area from Washington this week for the pro-Israel lobby's annual membership-drive events, offered several such insights Monday during an interview and a subsequent speech to 800 at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel.

The series of suicide bombings in Jerusalem this summer could have led Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discard the Oslo Accords, for example.

"He had every reason to say, `This is over,'" Kohr said.

Instead, Kohr said, Netanyahu's administration has begun figuring out how it wants Israel's borders to look at the end of the Oslo peace process.

Ariel Sharon, Israel's infrastructure minister, recently came to Washington to lay out the "beginning maps for Israel's minimal security requirements" under the final-status talks.

"And it's Sharon delivering this message," Kohr emphasized about the politician who has been a longtime champion of keeping the territories firmly under Israel's control.

Likewise, Knesset member Meir Sheetrit, who heads the Likud caucus, spoke about territorial compromise at the party's recent convention.

"He talks about a Palestinian state," Kohr said.

Kohr considers such events part of the broad strategic shift currently taking place in Israel.

Until now, he said, Israel's most profound decisions have resulted from the Middle East wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973.

"They were reactions to Arab provocations," he said. "They weren't initiatives on the part of Israel."

Kohr asserted that Netanyahu is slowly but surely conditioning nationalists to accept territorial compromise with the Palestinians in order to end up with an Israeli populace "that is more whole than it is torn apart."

"That is a very significant achievement if it can be done."

As a result, Kohr made one request of his audience, overwhelmingly composed of Jews. He asked them to wait for Israel's internal changes to come about at their own pace.

"The patience that is required is pivotal to the success."

Likewise, Kohr sees no reason for President Clinton to apply pressure on Netanyahu to start moving at a quicker clip in the peace talks.

"Working together is how results are achieved," Kohr said, adding that another problem arises when U.S.-Israeli relations appear to waver.

"When there are appearances of distance, it heightens the demands of the Palestinians. They figure the U.S. will deliver Israel."

Kohr would not offer any criticism of Israel's position in the peace talks, noting that AIPAC's role as a pro-Israel lobby isn't to censure the Jewish state.

Instead, he said, the organization's role is to maintain the U.S.-Israeli relationship and respect Israel's democracy during "good times or bad times.

"There has to be a constant," he said. "We can't lose sight of this fact."

But he did chastise the Palestinians for several offenses.

This week, for example, the United Nations rejected an appeal from the Palestinians to upgrade their status from observer to non-voting state.

Such a move on the Palestinians' part clearly violates the Oslo Accords, Kohr said, because such decisions are supposed to be left to the final-status talks between the two sides.

"This is exactly the kind of thing that is not supposed to happen."

In addition, he said, the Palestinians haven't followed through on the most serious requirements of the Oslo agreements.

They have not dismantled the terrorist infrastructure in the self-rule areas, he said. Many times, they have arrested suspected terrorists only to free them shortly afterward. And, he added, their police are not fully cooperating with Israeli security forces.

Kohr, who became AIPAC's top official 1-1/2 years ago, also spoke at AIPAC's events this week in San Jose and Oakland. The three events drew nearly 1,650.

Despite his critiques of the Palestinians, Kohr said the negotiations are actually moving ahead.

He described himself as more optimistic than many about the peace process because he talks frequently with top American and Israeli officials, who tell him more than he learns from the media.

"There are a lot of things going on behind the scenes."