Sharon as prime-minister-elect means backers face a PR battle

NEW YORK — With much of the world's media painting Ariel Sharon as a dangerous extremist, American Jewish advocates — whether or not they like the prime minister-elect — will find themselves working overtime to protect Israel's image.

"It will make everybody's job infinitely more difficult," said Henry Siegman, a former executive director of the American Jewish Congress and now director of the U.S./Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

Israel's image already has taken a grave hit since the outbreak of Palestinian violence in late September. To fend off further attacks, particularly at the United Nations, advocates say Israel must have the help of its most trusted and influential defender, the United States.

Israel backers therefore are frustrated that the Bush administration has yet to appoint a new ambassador to the United Nations to replace Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who was considered an effective defender of Israel.

Observers are bracing for an onslaught of anti-Israel condemnation in the wake of Sharon's election. Some predict the Arab world may call for Sharon to be indicted for war crimes connected with the 1982 massacre by Israel's Lebanese Christian allies of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

An Israeli inquiry commission found Sharon, who was then defense minister, indirectly responsible for the massacre because he failed to prevent it.

In March, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights will convene in Geneva to discuss the recent Palestinian-Israeli violence. At a special session in October, several of the commission's Arab members accused Israel of "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity."

Washington also has not named a new ambassador to the rights commission.

"Without a U.S. ambassador, we can guarantee that these high jinks — or low jinks — will have an open door. There will be nobody there to do much about it," said Felice Gaer, director of international organizations for the American Jewish Committee.

"The position, degree of interest and active diplomacy of the U.S. over the past 30 years has been the most decisive factor in how Israel is treated at the United Nations."

Yet even if Bush names a new ambassador to the United Nations right away, there is concern that U.S.-Israel relations will go through a period of cooling, or "disengagement."

First, Israel supporters say, it's unlikely that Bush will match former President Clinton's intense involvement with Israel.

Second, Sharon may react to Palestinian violence more harshly than did Prime Minister Ehud Barak. If so, Washington may find that this jeopardizes its interests in the Middle East, such as warm relations with moderate Arab states, the isolation of Iraq and a dependable supply of Middle East oil.

To counter Sharon's negative image, and to publicly demonstrate its support for peace efforts, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is considering the unusual move of issuing a statement of solidarity with the new Israeli leadership — co-signed by all past chairmen, regardless of their politics.

"The media has unfairly demonized Sharon, and we have an obligation to put things back in their proper context," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference.

"It's like when Menachem Begin was elected prime minister" in 1977, Hoenlein said.

"He was characterized as an extremist, a leader of a terrorist gang. But he's the man who signed Camp David," Hoenlein said, referring to Israel's peace treaty with Egypt. "Similarly, with Sharon, what we have to do is give the full picture of his background, his contributions to the state of Israel, and let people judge him by what he will do."

Hoenlein was pleased that Bush called to congratulate Sharon on his victory and that Secretary of State Colin Powell urged the Arab world to take a wait-and-see approach to the new Israeli premier.

Yet any Bush-Sharon honeymoon will not last long, Siegman predicted.

In recent years, American relations with Israel have followed a pattern, he said. If the Israeli government demonstrates a genuine interest in making peace, Washington is willing to overlook perceived missteps as aberrations.

Mindful of Barak's commitment to the peace process, for example, President Clinton criticized the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank as "not helpful" to the peace process, and left it at that.

However, Siegman said, if the Bush administration thinks Israel is not committed to peace — and even inflames the situation with provocative actions — it may be compelled to criticize Israel.

Siegman predicted that Sharon would incur American wrath. Already, Sharon's pledge not to negotiate with the Palestinians while violence continues smacks of Israeli intransigence, he said. It also shows Palestinians that they can "veto" peace talks with a bombing or drive-by shooting.

On the international stage, the scenario is even less optimistic. For half a century, the United Nations — swayed by the large voting bloc of Arab and Muslim states — has displayed a pronounced anti-Israel bias.

In 2000, Israel enjoyed a brief thaw in relations following its withdrawal from southern Lebanon; its acceptance into the Western European and Others Group, one of five regional groupings that presents candidates for U.N. bodies; and international praise for Barak's peace efforts.

But the improvement was short-lived, as the outbreak of violence in late September prompted another barrage of anti-Israel resolutions.

The AJCommittee is mounting the first challenge to the United Nations during the Sharon era, demanding that Israel finally be allowed to sit on the 15-member U.N. Security Council.

Such international pariahs as Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Cuba are eligible to serve as rotating members of the Security Council; only Israel, among all U.N. member states, is not.

The AJCommittee will remind member states of such historic injustices, said Shula Bahat, the group's acting executive director.

With the election of Sharon, some argue that Israeli society has thumbed its nose at international opinion. In fact, some American Jewish observers suggest that Israel should put international opinion, if not the peace process itself, on the back burner.

Israel's primary concern is in enhancing security and averting war, and Sharon's tough-guy image may be the ideal remedy, said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank.