Clinton reinforces image of staunch friend of Israel

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- President Clinton is seen here as the most pro-Israeli U.S. president in years, an image reinforced by his visit last week.

"He's been the president closest and friendliest to Israel," said Barry Ruben, a senior fellow at the Besa Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.


"People have a good feeling about him. They think he really does care," said Mark Heller, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

The image is backed by smoother relations between Israel and the United States that followed changes of administration in both countries two years ago.


It is reinforced both by Mr. Clinton's policies and his personal relationship to the Jewish state.

He described the latter in his speech to the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, on Thursday, recalling that he visited Israel on a religious mission with his wife and pastor 13 years ago.

On the trip, "we visited the holy sites," he said. "I relived the history of the Bible, or your Scriptures and mine, and I formed a bond with my pastor.

Pastor became ill

"Later, when he became desperately ill, he said he thought I might one day become president," Mr. Clinton said. "And he said: 'if you abandon Israel, God will never forgive you.' "

As president, Mr. Clinton has moved to put that sentiment into action. He lifted pressures placed on Israel by the Bush administration -- turning a blind eye to expansion of Jewish settlements -- and eased the penalties required in the $10 billion loan guarantees for Israeli spending in the occupied West Bank.

This forgiving policy shift was made easier by the replacement in June 1992 of the right-wing Israeli Likud government by the more liberal Labor-led coalition of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

But while Mr. Rabin promised to freeze most Jewish settlements, he has allowed significant expansion of many existing West Bank settlements without any protest by the United States.


Mr. Clinton is also on the verge of appointing the first-ever Jewish U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk.

U.S. foreign aid to Israel -- at $3 billion, the most to any country -- has not substantially increased. But Mr. Clinton has promised to shield it from cuts, despite financial demands on the U.S. budget and critical new needs for foreign aid ranging from Africa to the former Soviet Union.

'Cozy relationship'

"The image of policy-makers is that this is a close, cozy relationship," said Gabi Sheffer, a professor of political science at Hebrew University.

The Clinton administration has been fortunate that it has not paid a higher cost in the Arab world for this position. In its long alignment with Israel stretching over 10 administrations, the United States often has become isolated from the 22 Arab countries and 200 million Arabs.

But the collapse of the Soviet Union left the Arab countries no where to turn for support, and the gulf war coalition and benefits of the spreading peace have sent most Arab countries scrambling for U.S. favor.


If the United States demands they end their long warfare with Israel as the price for that favor, they have little choice but to comply.

"They've heard the road to Washington leads through Jerusalem," said Professor Peter Medding of Hebrew University.

"It's very clear to those countries that their choice of doing better business with the U.S. is contingent on normalizing their relations with Israel."

It is hard to overstate the extent in the Arab world to which Israel is seen as a U.S. protege -- or often, vice versa. On streets throughout Arab countries, and within the West Bank and Gaza Strip, one hears solemnly believed theories about how Jews control U.S. foreign policy and more.

Such popular sentiment makes even dictators pause before embracing U.S. proposals for peace. Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat's assassination after making peace at Camp David showed the risk of brave peace-making; Syrian President Hafez el Assad must dampen his public's anti-Zionism before signing any U.S.-backed plan with Israel.

"We have a treaty now with Israel because the U.S. wanted it. And what Jews in the U.S. want, they get," said Mohammed Abu-Ali, a taxi driver in Amman, Jordan.


Friendship is vowed

Such attitudes are supported when Israeli troops roll out in U.S.-made tanks and airplanes, or when they hear President Clinton tell the Israeli Knesset, as he did last week, "Know this: Your journey is our journey, and America will stand with you, now and always."

"This is not new for us," said Radwan al-Abdullah, chairman of the political science department at the University of Jordan in Amman. "It's a given that there's a very close, passionate relationship between Israel and the United States.

"The change is in his relationship with us," said Dr. Abdullah. "I really didn't think he had it in him. But when he came here [Wednesday] and addressed the Jordanian parliament, he performed very well. He seemed sincere, not heavy-handed. He spoke about improving things for the average man."

As the peace process continues, the conflict between the U.S. alliance with Israel and U.S. relations with the Arab countries will subside, argues Tel Aviv University's Dr. Heller.

"It's a misperception that an effective mediator has to be neutral or objective," he said. In fact, it will speed negotiations if the United States makes clear that it backs Israel, he argues.


"The Arab states will know that no kind of serious peace agreement would be reached by pursuing a policy in hopes the U.S. will pressure Israel. They will know they have to come to grips directly with Israel," he said.

Mr. Clinton's personal warmth toward Israel may encourage Israelis to agree to some concessions in peace plans of which they might otherwise be wary, said Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University.

"Psychologically, it's very important," he said. "The Israeli government will be more willing to take risks. It's a sense of trust."