Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January 1991, Page 11
Shamir-Bush Confrontation Threatens Desert Shield
By Nathan Jones
"I've never seen two people looking more uncomfortable than Bush and Shamir at their White House meeting. "
—Journalist Morton Kondracke, Dec.16,1990
At their Dec. 11 meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who had informed his advisers in November that he had decided to confront the US now rather than later, and US President George Bush, who had agreed to the meeting only at the urging of US Jewish leaders, discomfort was in the eye of the beholder. The two leaders smiled vacuously at the beginning of their meeting and then, if accounts of the conversation by Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly are correct, they set a two-hour record for uninterrupted small talk, dodging virtually all of the serious issues dividing their two countries.
The discomfort level was high, however, on the part of Shamir's Israeli aides and American Jewish supporters, who know what a mountain of issues now separate Israel and the United States, and are deeply suspicious of the obvious desire of the Bush administration to avoid dealing with them until the issue of war or peace with Iraq is in a less crucial phase.
The First Warning
Secretary of State James Baker III produced the first warning that the relationship was in serious trouble in the spring of 1989 when, in a speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) national convention, he called upon Israel's American supporters to persuade Yitzhak Shamir "to give up the dream of a 'greater Israel."
In June 1990, Baker signaled the further downward spiral of relations between the Bush and Shamir administrations when, in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, he informed an aggressively pro-Israel congressman that Israel knows the number to call "when it is serious about peace," and then gave the White House telephone number.
Now Israel is pressing hard to increase its aid in the current 1991 fiscal year from the already approved total of $1.8 billion in military aid and $1.2 billion in economic aid, despite the overall cuts in US spending mandated by out-of-control US budgetary deficits. The Bush administration has given in on the transfer from Europe of $700 million in surplus US military equipment to Israel. Bush dug in, however, on $400 million in loan guarantees needed to enable Israel to borrow funds to construct housing for the sudden influx of more than 150,000 Soviet Jewish immigrants in 1990, and the larger number anticipated in 1991.
At this writing, the US still has not released the money, pending Israeli guarantees that Jewish immigrants will not be settled in the West Bank and Gaza, areas that will go back to Arab control under the land-for-peace formula of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which the US supports. The US includes East Jerusalem in the areas where the Soviet immigrants should not be settled.
When Shamir refused to give the guarantees, the US courted Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, also a Likud Bloc member, and received from him a letter seeming to offer the needed assurance. Upon Levy's return to Israel, however, Shamir denounced the concession, Levy remained silent, and US-Israeli relations remained frozen. At the same time, Shamir announced briskly that Israel will have to raise $40 billion in additional funds in the next few years from world Jewry, increased taxes, and foreign aid to settle all the expected Soviet immigrants.
With Israel in urgent need of foreign aid on such a massive scale, it seemed at first glance to Shamir's US supporters an incredibly bad time to refuse, in the wake of the Israeli massacre of at least 18 Palestinians in Jerusalem's Haram Al-Sharif, to receive UN envoys to report back on ways to protect the Palestinians under occupation.
It seemed worse than bad timing to Bush, who had instructed his UN delegate to vote for each of two UN Security Council resolutions calling for just such an investigation. He told American Jewish leaders, who protested the US vote and US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, he was concentrating on holding together coalitions in support of the UN embargo on Iraq and the Desert Shield operation to confront the Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait. If US Jewish leaders did not prevail on Shamir to back off, Bush threatened, he would "go public" to say "who is with us and who is not."
Shamir's defiance only pointed up exactly what Bush was hoping to avoid: the linkage between the abuse of Palestinians under Israeli military occupation and Kuwaitis under Iraqi military occupation.
For Shamir, however, it was a calculated move to bring to a head the long-simmering confrontation at a time of maximum vulnerability for Bush. On the eve of the fateful cabinet meeting in which Israel formally rejected the UN investigators, the Israeli prime minister convened his top advisers to explain why he had chosen this moment, and also this issue, for his confrontation with the US.
For most Israelis, settlements in the occupied territories are not important. By making his confrontation with Bush an issue of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, rather than over the West Bank, Shamir hopes to carry with him the Israeli people and, more important, the American Jewish community, regardless of the long-run costs to both.
So far it has worked. Not only have the hard-line Likud supporters among US Jewish leaders supported Shamir, but so have prominent Jewish Republican fund-raisers like Max Fisher of Detroit and George Klein of New York.
"A Brutal Session"
In the United Nations, US Representative to the UN Thomas Pickering, a former ambassador to both Israel and Jordan, was confronted by 50 US Jewish leaders in what observers described as "a brutal session" and "oneof the toughest confrontations with any administration official," according to the Jerusalem Post. The media, predictably, weighed in with a spate of stories aimed at undercutting US-Saudi relations.
AIPAC, Israel's Washington lobby, added to the pressure on Bush by announcing that it would oppose in Congress the second of the administration's proposed three arms packages for Saudi Arabia. Bush is known to feel that his handling of Desert Shield will be the pivotal point of his presidency. By showing him how they can chip away at Desert Shield's Saudi underpinning, AIPAC and Shamir seemed to be betting that they could have their way with Bush now, and let the future take care of itself.
The pressures on Bush from the other side, however, are enormous, quite apart from what his Arab allies are telling him, and the nattering of Saddam Hussain's rapidly dwindling coterie of Arab supporters. On Dec. 14, European leaders released two documents, one attacking the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, and the other declaring the consternation of EC leaders over the persistent absence of any solution to the Palestinian problem.
The EC leaders called for the UN to convene an international conference on the Middle East "at the appropriate time, " and criticized Israel's collective reprisals against Palestinians under Israeli military occupation.
The separation of the two statements was in keeping with Bush's request that the EC avoid any direct linkage in its policy statements between the Iraqi and Israeli military occupations. That, however, was the only concession to the US relationship with Israel. The EC message provided clear support for a draft UN Security Council resolution seeking to protect the Palestinians.
The US had delayed Security Council consideration of the resolution for more than three weeks, while seeking to water it down by threatening to veto it if it were too critical of Israel. Among the proposals in initial drafts of the resolution were the use of UN personnel already present in Israeli-occupied areas to monitor, and seek to prevent, Israeli violations of international law and of the human rights of Palestinians under their control. Also proposed in initial drafts were a conference of nations which have signed the Fourth Geneva Convention, and a Middle East peace conference under UN auspices.
US action on the measure will determine far more than the current temperature of US-Israeli relations. It will determine the strength of the diplomatic underpinning of Operation Desert Shield. A call for a Mideast peace conference could also provide a ladder to enable Iraqi President Saddam Hussain to climb down from the limb upon which he has been stranded since his invasion of Kuwait. For a million heavily armed soldiers poised on both sides of the Saudi Arabian border with Iraqi-occupied Kuwait, Bush's decision at the UN may be a matter of life or death. ❑
Nathan Jones, a journalist with roots in Belleville, Ontario, spent many years in his country's foreign service in the Middle East.