WASHINGTON -- In a direct challenge to Israel and its powerful supporters in Congress, President Bush threatened yesterday to veto legislation extending $10 billion in loan guarantees to the Jewish state if the lawmakers ignore his plea to postpone action on the measure for 120 days.
"A 120-delay is not too much for a president to ask for with so much in the balance," said Mr. Bush, who fears that consideration of the Israeli aid request now could upset delicate negotiations to convene a Middle East peace conference.
"For the first time in history, the vision of Israelis sitting with thei Arab neighbors to talk peace is a real prospect," the president told reporters at a news conference called to clarify his position and counter a pro-Israel lobbying effort on Capitol Hill. "Nothing should be done that might interfere with this prospect."
In Jerusalem, Foreign Minister Davy Levy issued a statement that said, "Israel is not seeking a confrontation with the United States, its ally, just as our request for guarantees is not a provocation against anyone, nor a hindrance to the advancement of the peace process."
Mr. Bush called upon the public to support what he characterized as a tactical decision on timing that wouldn't hurt Israel's chances for getting the help to finance housing for Soviet immigrants and would help to reassure Arabs who fear that settlements will be built in the occupied territories.
"It is my best judgment that a rancorous debate now is literally minuscule in importance compared to the objective of peace," ++ Mr. Bush said. "I just don't want to risk [the possibility of peace] by us taking some stand in the United States Congress against a request by the president in order to satisfy some other interest."
Mr. Bush's harsh tone, which was punctuated with some uncharacteristic fist-pounding on his lectern, came after days of conciliatory gestures toward Washington's powerful Israeli lobby that have produced no compromise.
The president said he had worn out his telephone "and one ear" making personal appeals to lawmakers over the past week. Secretary of State James A. Baker III and other top national security advisers have also made scores of calls.
But their private contacts, including a session Mr. Bush held yesterday with top lawmakers, failed to hold off what he called the "powerful political forces" unleashed by Israel.
More than 1,000 Jewish activists from across the country converged on Capitol Hill yesterday to urge prompt action on a proposal to be offered shortly by Sens. Bob Kasten, R-Wis., and Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, that would provide the $10 billion in loan guarantees.
"It is our firm conviction that any further delay not only would cause deep hardship among the hundreds of thousands of new immigrants to Israel, it would also hurt the chances for peace" by allowing the Arabs to apply pressure on Israel through the United States, said Shoshana S. Cardin, chairwoman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
"There's a tremendous effort going on, and we have had a low profile on this," Mr. Bush said of the lobbying effort. "I wake up now and see that we better get out the message loud and clear."
The White House is still hoping that Mr. Baker and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir can come to terms over the loan issue and that a confrontation can be avoided.
The president has also been particularly annoyed at claims by Mr. Shamir and other Israeli officials that the United States has a "moral obligation" to provide the loan guarantees without conditions and that Mr. Bush had promised the $10 billion package would be forthcoming.
"Absolutely not," he said, when asked whether he had made such a commitment. "That would undermine everything." The president has promised that he would facilitate consideration of such an aid proposal by Congress in January.