Israel is not for sale


THIS IS a passage from a personal letter sent to the prime minister of Israel by a particularly sophisticated and experienced American supporter of his government and country:

"If it should develop that the availability of loan guarantees should be conditioned upon a change in the principles you have adopted regarding participation in the proposed international peace conference or upon a change in the settlement policies established by the government of Israel, I would urge that Israel forgo the loan guarantee instead of compromising your principles . . . Policies and principles . . . should not be for sale."

The letter was written by Kenneth J. Bialkin, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and former president of the umbrella group of American Jewish organizations. Some other American supporters of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir are telling him or each other much the same thing.

They know the loan guarantees to build homes and jobs for Soviet Jews are enormously important. But they are coming to believe that it would be better for Israel to withdraw the guarantee request to the U.S. until it is free of conditions that could distort the peace process, and the future. Instead Israel would have to look even more to itself and its friends.

It is not the guarantee issue alone that troubles them but what it shows about the Bush administration's intentions about Israel. In Israel, there is the same concern among centrists in the Shamir government that Bush is not only setting the price for guarantees unaffordably high now but that he and the Arabs will keep raising the ante on one issue after another.

Put as bluntly as it should be, more American backers of Israel and officials in Jerusalem believe that if the Bush administration could have its way, Israel would lose Jerusalem as its capital and would be pushed back to pre-1967 borders. That would make it a tempting target once again, 10 miles from the enemy to the sea.

Before the talks even begin, Israel is asked to give up its West Bank settlement plans. Obviously that involves such questions as who should run the West Bank, whether one side or the other, and whether it be shared territorially or administratively.

Important questions -- but until Bush started his political blitz against Israel, the assumption was that those things were supposed to be what the talks with Palestinians would be all about, not settled in advance.

Also strange: Bush asks nothing of the Arab states except to sit down and chat. Did the idea never cross his mind that maybe Syria should also agree in advance to land for peace? One way would be to get out of Lebanon, whose colonization by Syria was accepted by Washington with a silence that shouted America's acquiescence.

vTC Now that Bush has vividly shown his obsession with Jews in the West Bank, the Arabs will make that a theme from the beginning of the talks. They had not intended to do that until he reminded them how important it was.

Despite the booby traps, it is still worthwhile for Israel to talk directly with Arab states and Palestinians. Withdrawal of the request for guarantees might persuade Arab rulers that Israel could not be delivered to them.

But Israel cannot answer the guarantee problem by closing its doors to Soviet Jews and still keep its national purpose. For help it would have to look even more to Jews abroad, and to itself. That would mean more sacrifices for Israeli taxpayers.

Maybe then Israeli politicians would finally be forced to privatize the draining, patronage-fat enterprises run by the government, a relic of Israel's socialist days.

Government holdings in land should be sold off and every government business put on the market -- chemical companies, transportation and communication giants, all of them. That would bring in about $2 billion at least, and help the economy raise even more.

Israeli politicians are no better than most at brave economic leaps -- and worse than some. But perhaps Bush's policy, and his deliberately unpleasant message of delivery, will shock them enough to do what is needed now to protect Israel's security, independence, economy and its dignity, all four.

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