Barak obviously doesnt understand American Jews

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

America and Israel have an odd new ritual.

Israeli leaders come here to present their message. America is suddenly swept up in some unexpected domestic soap opera. Israel's message is lost in the noise. It can be infuriating if you're Israeli.

It started with Benjamin Netanyahu's January 1998 visit. As he landed, the Monica Lewinsky story broke. He returned in May, but the news was all about Frank Sinatra's death. That August, Ehud Barak visited as newly crowned Israel's opposition leader. That's when the blue dress surfaced.

This week was Barak's first visit as prime minister. Just in time to mourn John Kennedy Jr.

This time, though, Barak didn't feel frustrated. He wasn't interested in media coverage. He wanted to talk with President Clinton, to ensure they understood each other. With the public, Barak's goal was to listen. Particularly with the Jewish community.

That's why he insisted on small-group gatherings, rather than the traditional prime ministerial address to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. That's the main reason he didn't attend synagogue. He isn't ready to address the Jews.

Barak faces a dilemma in addressing American Jewry. He knows Israel has a powerful asset in the organized Jewish lobby. He also knows much of the community's activist core isn't on his wavelength. He knows this can cause him grief. But, he admitted on several occasions last week, he doesn't yet know what to do about it.

The gap is straightforward. Barak believes the Palestinians and Syrians are ready for peace, probably on terms Israel can safely accept. Most American Jews aren't convinced. The result: Barak is preparing for a full-court press toward peace with the Arabs, while much of American Jewry is still waging war against them.

This translates into a welter of Jewish initiatives in Congress to give Israel protections it may not want: restricting Palestinian aid, limiting U.S. participation in theoretical Golan peacekeeping forces, preventing Washington from rewarding hardline Arab regimes when they soften.

The underlying assumption is that the Arabs haven't shown they're ready for peace. A favorite charge is that Yasser Arafat isn't honoring his agreements, proving he hasn't changed. The idea is to withhold American favors until they shape up.

Barak believes the Arabs are ready. Privately he's used the word "ludicrous" to describe the notion that the Palestinians represent a threat to Israel. He thinks his background as Israel's military commander and intelligence chief qualifies him to judge these things. He believes he knows how to handle the Arabs. He just can't figure out how to handle his friends in America.

His advisers are divided. Some want him to impose his will on the central Jewish policy bodies in this country, like the Conference of Presidents and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The advisers say these groups should be reflecting Israeli government views.

The advisers are particularly worried about Jewish rightists' efforts to "demonize" Arafat. Without Arafat as a partner, there's no peace process.

Other advisers don't think it's so bad if American Jews are more frightened of Arabs than the Israelis are. If American Jews are scared stiff — even needlessly so — they'll push Washington to squeeze Arafat, and Israel will have an easier time negotiating. Cynical? Hey, it works.

Questioned last week on where he's headed, Barak gave contradictory answers. He told listeners American Jews should do what they think is right. He also said the community should unite behind the peace process.

He also called for depoliticizing congressional support for Israel, restoring the bipartisan consensus of old. That's code for ending the alliance between pro-Likud lobbyists and congressional Republicans, which has produced the harshest anti-Arab measures.

One key figure, Rep. Ben Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the International Relations Committee and the House's sole Jewish Republican, has blocked adoption of a House resolution congratulating Barak on his election. That sort of militance is worrying.

Though uncertain, Barak did drop broad hints last week about which way he's leaning. At one meeting he was asked if some new structure weren't needed in American Jewry to let the Israeli prime minister's voice be heard. His answer was, yes, a structure is needed. But he doesn't yet know what it should look like.