The chairmen of the House and Senate foreign affairs committees pledged unqualified support Wednesday for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security policy, undercutting Clinton administration criticism of Israel’s expansion of Jewish settlements in the disputed West Bank.
“There are voices who insist that it is incumbent upon the state of Israel to make all the sacrifices for peace,” Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, R-N.Y., said in a letter to Netanyahu. “Do not count us among such people.”
The lawmakers said it is up to the Israeli government to set its own policy on settlements and other issues. While saying they will not second guess the Israelis, Helms and Gilman said: “We do, however, support your efforts to ensure the security of Israel’s people and its borders.”
The letter was a response to President Clinton’s complaint earlier this week that Netanyahu’s decision to increase tax breaks and other financial incentives to Israelis settling in the West Bank was an effort to “preempt” an issue that is supposed to remain open for later negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Asked if the settlement policy is “an obstacle to peace,” Clinton replied: “Absolutely.”
Administration officials said the president’s remarks were intended to show Washington’s impatience with Netanyahu’s increasingly hard-line policy. The Israeli government is usually sensitive to criticism from Washington because it relies on the U.S. government for $3 billion a year in aid and for political support in the United Nations and other international organizations.
But the letter from Helms and Gilman clearly takes away some of the sting of Clinton’s scolding by assuring Netanyahu that he retains support on Capitol Hill.
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns sought to minimize the controversy. He said that Helms and Gilman have “the right and probably the obligation” to express their views.
The controversy over Netanyahu’s policy seems to have split the U.S. Jewish community. Groups allied with the Israeli peace movement are calling on Clinton to get even ougher, while supporters of Netanyahu’s Likud government are accusing the president of showing a pro-Arab bias.
In the middle is the vast majority of American Jews who support the peace process, agree that Israel ultimately will have to trade land for peace and are somewhat squeamish about Netanyahu’s efforts to expand settlements, said a Jewish leader who requested anonymity. But, this leader said, the centrist group objects to Clinton criticizing Israel in public and is urging him to confine his remarks to private channels.
This leader said there is concern that Clinton’s public posture encourages Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat “to drag out the process while the U.S.-Israel relationship continues to deteriorate.”
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, which generally supports Netanyahu, said the American Jewish community is concerned that Clinton’s criticism is directed only at Israel, ignoring Palestinian violations of the peace agreement. He said the president’s remarks this week, coming only a week after Arab terrorists murdered two members of a West Bank Jewish family, “shows them that terrorism pays.”
Without pulling back from the administration criticism of Israel’s settlement policy, State Department spokesman Burns on Wednesday made it clear that Washington also is growing impatient with the Palestinians. He said Israel has offered some concessions in negotiations over the redeployment of Israeli troops in Hebron and said that it is time for the Palestinians to reciprocate.