News Analysis: Are U.S. Jews caught between Bibi and Bill

WASHINGTON — Are Washington and Jerusalem on a course that will force the American Jewish community to choose between Bill and Bibi?

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's plea for Jewish support has placed the community squarely between Washington and Jerusalem as they tussle over the next step in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Clearly stung by attacks from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that President Clinton is pushing a peace plan that endangers Israel's security, Albright last week turned to the American Jewish community for support.

Her plea followed Netanyahu's campaign for support from American Jews to forestall the American peace plan.

How the organized Jewish community responds to Albright and Netanyahu will be particularly critical in the wake of this week's unsuccessful U.S. peace mission.

Dennis Ross, U.S. special Middle East coordinator, returned from Israel Tuesday without the basic framework for continuing negotiations he had hoped to achieve during a series of shuttle visits between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. Ross had wanted to find some middle ground between the 13-percent pullback of troops from the West Bank advocated by the United States and the 9-percent figure supported by the Israeli government.

The mission, which had been billed as a last-ditch effort to revive the deadlocked negotiations, now raises the question of whether the administration will walk away from the process in frustration and disgust.

Albright suggested Tuesday that "some progress" had been made but was not specific.

The Clinton administration has always remained sensitive to Jewish opinion.

High-level officials check in regularly with Jewish organizational officials. In addition, the president himself pays attention to surveys of American Jewish public opinion.

According to a knowledgeable source, Clinton has read a copy of the recent American Jewish Committee poll reporting that a majority of American Jews support Netanyahu's handling of the peace process, and 94 percent say the Palestinian Authority is not doing enough to control terrorist activity.

Members of the White House staff and supporters of Vice President Al Gore are said to be concerned that a misstep with the Jews would encourage another Democrat to siphon Jewish support away from Gore during the 2000 presidential primaries, not to mention losing votes to a Republican candidate during the elections.

Netanyahu appears to have played on those fears during the past two weeks with a campaign accusing the United States of proposing a plan that would endanger Israel's security.

After Ross departed Israel, Netanyahu said, "We are not suckers."

In a speech to Israeli high school students Tuesday, Netanyahu said, "A situation in which we will give and not receive is not acceptable. Israel cannot give and give and not get anything back in return from the other side."

Netanyahu's rhetoric is exactly the kind Albright urged Jewish leaders to discourage in a conference call Friday of last week.

"Portraying us as if we are shoving something down Israel's throat [is] not helpful," Albright told some 30 representatives from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The high-stakes potential for a split between Jerusalem and Washington led to the unusual Albright plea for support.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are in trouble here on this process. We need your support," she said according to an unofficial transcript of the conference call obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

"We need help in having the Israeli government understand that we are doing our very best to protect their security and that this, in our best judgment, is the best way to go about it."

Only days before Albright's plea, Netanyahu dispatched a top aide from the Israeli Embassy in Washington to issue his own call for support.

Lenny Ben-David, political counselor at the Israeli Embassy, traveled to New York to urge the organized Jewish community to oppose the U.S. proposal that links a further Israeli withdrawal from 13 percent of West Bank to specific Palestinian security steps.

The contradictory pleas have put American Jewry squarely in the middle of what could become a nasty disagreement between Clinton and Netanyahu.

"Bibi would like the American Jewish community to come forward and march in their parade," said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.

"The Americans want us to march with them," he added. "But we're going to follow our own course."

But members of the organized community are still grappling with what exactly it is they should be reacting to. Given the absence of a publicly announced U.S. plan and any overt pressure, official response to either the Israeli or American governments is problematic.

"We're going to be in a period now that's just beginning where there will be differences between the United States and Israel. It will pose some challenges for the Jewish community," said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

The split has some activists talking about the infamous — and unsuccessful — pro-Israel lobbying campaign against the 1981 sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia.

Then it was Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin who faced off against President Ronald Reagan, arguing that the sale would endanger Israel's security.

The lobbying cry became "Reagan or Begin" as Jewish activists and members of Congress were asked to choose between the two leaders.

While the current political stalemate has not yet forced Jews and Jewish organizations to choose between Clinton and Netanyahu, some fear the situation has gotten to the point where such a choice might be imminent.

In addition, it is far from clear that the Jewish community would choose Netanyahu.

Jewish groups have rejected at least three direct appeals from Israeli officials to issue clear-cut statements supporting Netanyahu in his opposition to the U.S. plan on security grounds, according to several sources.

And, following their own conference call last week, officials of the Jewish Council decided that the best course of action right now is no action.

For his part, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, criticized Netanyahu for his handling of the split with Clinton.

"Why are we going to the barricades now?" he said.

"Netanyahu is maneuvering in a way that may be counterproductive," Foxman said after the Israeli Cabinet adopted a statement critical of the American plan.

Still, others continue to voice support for Netanyahu's position.

The idea of some in the State Department "that promulgating an American plan and then using pressure tactics to try to coerce Israel to accepting it has been tried repeatedly and has never worked," Howard Kohr, the executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said last week.

For now, many Jewish leaders are in a holding mode waiting to see what emerges after Clinton receives a briefing from Albright and Ross.

Meanwhile, both the House and Senate are circulating letters to be sent to Clinton calling on him not to publicly pressure Israel to accept the American proposal for further redeployments.

Israeli officials expect another Ross trip before the end of April.