President Bush’s threat last week to veto any immediate Congressional approval of the US$10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel for the absorption of Soviet Jewish immigrants caused a near apoplectic reaction in Jerusalem and from the Israeli government’s hardline supporters in the United States. The reaction has hardly been diffused by secretary of state James Baker’s tough “compromise” plan offered to Israel this Tuesday.
But Bush’s action was not unexpected. There has been growing tension between Washington and Jerusalem from the start of Bush’s presidency, when he agreed to conduct a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The dogged determination that both Bush and Baker have shown in pursuing their objective of dragging Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table has clearly been a new and uncomfortable experience for Israel’s right-wing Likud government.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has two opposing pressures to contend with. He must appease American demands, but he dare not offend the far-right parties in his coalition and risk breaking up the most right-wing government in Israel’s short history. The latter consideration has meant giving way—at least in part—to Housing Minister Arik Sharon’s headlong drive to settle the West Bank. Indeed, every time Baker visits Israel, another settlement seems to spring up. A cluster of quickly parked caravans became the embryonic settlements of Revava. Talmon B and New Givon.
Such spoiling tactics by Sharon and the far Right irked both Bush and Baker, as did Shamir’s approval of such antics.
During the financial year 1990-91, Israeli housing ministry expenditure on the settlements was near to US$500 million. During that period, the government of Israel spent a record 1.5 billion shekels (£375 million) on the territories—a huge increase on previous years. The daily newspaper Yediot Aharanot recently reported that the housing ministry had plans to construct more than 100,000 homes in the territories during the coming decade, at a cost of US$14 billion.
For many Israelis, the central attraction of moving into the territories is the cheap cost of property. For others, religion has been the motivation for settling in places that evoke tales of Biblical splendour. Today, approximately 100,000 Jews live in the territories conquered during the six-day war. Yet a June opinion poll suggested that 72 per cent of Israelis wanted the settlement drive to stop. In addition to the matter of the territories, US-Israeli relations are hampered by an undeniable lack of personal rapport between Bush and Shamir. It is significant that Bush did not even bother to telephone Shamir during the “phoney” gulf war from the invasion of Kuwait to the outbreak of hostilities five months later. Only when it became imperative to prevent Israeli retaliation after the Iraqi Scud attacks on Tel Aviv did the US President actually talk to the Israeli leader. Given Shamir’s penchant for doing little amid a flurry of activity and his unwillingness to restrain the far right’s breathless rush to establish even more settlements, a showdown with Bush was inevitable.
The glasnost that opened the gates of the Soviet Union for the mass emigration of Jews coincided with American decision at the end of 1989 to close their own gates. As a result, the only destination for the multitudes was Israel. Countless Soviet citizens—with often the most tangential Jewish connection—chose this exodus as a means of escaping the disintegration of the old union and its replacement with a plethora of often virulent nationalisms. Israel’s Law of Return is not defined in terms of halacha—Jewish religious law. If it were, only those with Jewish mothers could become full Jewish Israelis.
In 1990, 180,000 arrived—more than the previous 20 years combined. This year, 130,000 arrived in the first eight months. No modern industrial state has undergone such a influx. One Israeli observer compared it to the US absorbing the population of Italy.
Up to a million new immigrants could arrive during the next five years, which would increase Israel’s Jewish population by a quarter. Half the new arrivals intend to participate in the workforce, compared with 33 per cent of the indigenous population.
Although the Israeli government has promised the Americans not to settle Soviet Jews in the territories, it has not discouraged the new immigrants from moving there from temporary initial accommodation in Israel. Soviet Jews are ill-informed about the complexities of the Israel-Palestine issue and might be tempted to the settlements by the cheap housing and better quality of life. Yet 40 per cent are domiciled in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, and a similar percentage in secondary urban centres in Israel Few will ultimately want the insecurity of the West Bank after their Soviet experience. Moreover, they are devout secularists with no messianic dreams about Judea and Sama-ria—the traditional Jewish names for the West Bank area.
The policy of allowing such an infusion of new blood can be justified only by reference to the Zionist experiment—the wish to transform the Jews from a pariah people into a normative nation-state. Only a deep ideological motivation could justify the severe economic and social dislocation caused by such a mass influx. The former governor of the Bank of Israel put the cost of the ingathering of the exiles at US$5 billion annually—others have doubled that estimate. For a small country such as Israel, which maintains almost a war footing, these sums are enormous. To avoid virtual economic collapse, the US was the only address to which pleas for loan guarantees could be addressed.
Bush applied leverage on the Israeli government at two levels. He demanded that settlement activity cease, and he postponed granting the loan guarantees until after the convening of the Middle East peace conference scheduled for next month. The idea of this meeting, it has been suggested, is to produce confidence-building measures by the Arabs, which would be reciprocated by an Israeli freeze on settlements. Only then would the issue of loan guarantees be considered.
Shamir has never been enthusiastic about attending the US-brokered peace conference, since it could pose a threat to Likud’s maximalist ambitions for the territories—and his critics on the far right oppose it vociferously. Indeed, several Israeli journalists have suggested that his reluctance to back Russian president Boris Yeltsin unambiguously during the early days of the Soviet coup stemmed from a hope that the incoming junta would abort the peace conference. A delay in the granting of loan guarantees could do the same—and may be what Shamir secretly hopes for. But the economic consequences of a delay, even for a few months, could be serious for Israel’s economy.
From the US, there is an unspoken fear that if it gives Israel too much money, this will release other funds to accelerate settlement activity. That would enhance the political standing of Arik Sharon as Shamir’s possible successor and allow him to lead Likud into the 1992 Israeli elections. Moreover, Sharon and the far right would benefit electorally from the new immigrants since 20 per cent of the 1992 Israeli electorate will be Soviet Jews. Recent surveys suggest two thirds I would vote for the right
To deny funds propels Bush into a confrontation with the so-called American Jewish lobby. This will probably create an undercurrent of anti-Jewish murmurings, and in the short term paradoxically strengthen the hardliners in the American Jewish community. This lobby has its feet firmly in the pro-Shamir camp and its views are unrepresentative of US Jewry’s generally liberal attitudes. Yossi Sand, a leading dovish member of the Knesset, last week accused – the lobby of exhibiting sycophantic tendencies. Likud governments have consistently encouraged the official promotion of groups such as the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organisations as a representative body of American Jewry—al-though it came into existence because the White House tired of seeing a vast array of Jewish groups. Yet this administrative formality has evolved into a political instrument for successive Israeli governments. There is much duplication of membership among its constituent bodies and its rotating leadership is characterised by its lack of independent views and an adherence to the specific policies of the Israeli government of the day.
Although some members of Congress pay due attention to these hardline Jewish groups. Bush himself does not need official Jewish electoral endorsement. The Republicans have a few wealthy Jewish backers, but the Jewish vote is insignificant for the party: Jews have voted solidly for the Democrats since time immemorial. Seventy per cent supported Dukakis in 1988, a figure only exceeded by American blacks.
Even with the latest Bush-Baker compromise on the timing of possible loan guarantees, the long-term domestic repercussions could still be severe. The leadership of American Jewry, which has militantly espoused the New Jewish Politics, based on survivalism and general support for the Israeli right, has been a dominant force since the six-day war of 1967. The sight of Bush publicly sparring with Shamir could lead it to question its own blanket endorsement of the Israeli leadership.
New Statesman 20 September 1991