Kosovo Crisis Roils U.S.-Israel Relations
U.S.-Israel relations, already strained by differences over the Oslo and Wye River agreements and the expansion of Jewish settlements, hit a new minefield this week as officials in Jerusalem signaled ambivalence about the U.S.-led NATO campaign to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
That reticence, officials here complain, damages Israel’s claim to be America’s most steadfast ally.
Israel’s reaction to the Kosovo military campaign and the plight of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees have Jewish leaders here worried, as well, despite an outpouring of humanitarian aid from the Jewish state.
“Israel erred in allowing itself to be seen as ambivalent or detached or lukewarm in its support for the NATO effort,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “The fact is that Israel’s geopolitical
interest are closely aligned with those of the West. At the same time, we have to expect more from Israel when it comes to such defining moral issues.”
Harris described Israel’s handling of the Kosovo affair as clumsy and damaging to the U.S.-Israel relationship.
“Israel seemed more focused on Serbia’s traditional friendship with the Jews, on their fears of a Muslim outpost in Europe and on their desire to strengthen ties with Moscow while the rest of the world was watching desperate refugees on television,” he said. “These were miscalculations, I think.”
He said there may be merit in Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon’s current effort to improve relations with Russia, but that “this was the wrong issue at the wrong time.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week urged the International Monetary Fund to approve a $4.8 billion loan for Russia. Sharon has traveled to Russia a number of times in recent months, and suggested to newspaper reporters that at least part of his motivation was to appeal to Russian Jews in Israel before the May 17 elections. Some pro-Israel groups in Washington were unhappy that Netanyahu seemed to undercut their intensive efforts to toughen sanctions on Russian companies involved in arms proliferation.
Late last week, Jerusalem moved to defuse the mounting crisis with a formal statement that “Israel fully supports the efforts of the United States and NATO to bring about a conclusion of the crisis as soon as possible.” Officials here say that still falls short of an endorsement of the bombing campaign, and note that Israel continues to avoid any direct condemnation of Serbia or its president, Slobodan Milosevic.
Sharon heard sharp words on that subject — as well as settlements and the stalled Wye River agreement — at a meeting with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Friday. Several observers described the session as “chilly.”
In meetings with Jewish officials, an unrepentant Sharon warned that an independent Kosovo could create an Islamic mini-state capable of exporting terrorism throughout Europe, and said that the Kosovo Liberation Army is backed by terror groups supported by Iran.
At a meeting with Jewish leaders in Israel, Netanyahu insisted Sharon was speaking only for himself. But that didn’t satisfy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Martin Indyk. In a meeting with Netanyahu over the weekend, Indyk repeated administration concerns about the timing and character of the Israeli diplomatic initiative with Russia, which has threatened to provide military support to help Serbia fight NATO forces, and irritation with Netanyahu’s response to the NATO air campaign.
“In this situation where we are engaged in a war, we feel that it is reasonable to expect maximum support from our friends and allies like Israel,” Indyk said.
But he added that Israel was moving closer to the kind of support Washington demands.
Administration officials and some Mideast analysts continue to believe the Israel’s new diplomatic initiative with Moscow and its corresponding reluctance to criticize Syria are functions of local politics.
Mideast analyst Stephen P. Cohen said that Sharon is seeking a deal with Russia, probably to restart the stalled talks with Syria, but “that it’s all politics. He’s not offering anything Syria is likely to accept. Netanyahu wants to show he’s negotiating, but he does not want to make any agreements.”
Both the Russian overtures and the weak statements of support for U.S. Yugoslav policy, Cohen said, “are a form of poking a finger in Mr. Clinton’s eye. It’s saying to the president, ‘why should we support you against the Serbians when you won’t support us against the Palestinians?’ He’s doing it for domestic political consumption, and it is irresponsible.”
Other analysts, however, say it is the administration that is playing political games.
Douglas Feith, a national security official during the Reagan administration, argued that the administration’s pique is intended to undercut Netanyahu in the upcoming election by suggesting to Israeli voters that he has bungled relations with the United States.
“There are probably multiple reasons for the hostile comments that the Clinton administration has been making about the Israeli government,” he said. “But one of them appears to be the desire to be a player in the Israeli election campaigns.”
Feith said that is part of a longstanding pattern of administration interference in Israeli democracy.
“It’s inappropriate and unconstructive, but it’s consistent with this administration,” he said.
The Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League, Jess Hordes, said he doesn’t consider the current flap “to be more than a blip in the relationship.”
“But there are definitely near-term tensions that have surfaced over these statements. Part of it is tone and atmosphere and a residue of mistrust that exists between the administration and the Netanyahu government over a number of issues,” he said.
At the same time, Hordes said, Israel has raised some legitimate concerns about the potential problems that an independent Muslim Kosovar state could create.
Several Jewish leaders expressed anxiety about the KLA, but said the group’s radicalism does not alter the need to respond to Serbian ethnic cleansing.
Agudah Wins USDA Fight
Orthodox Jewish activists won a significant victory in the recurring battle over government nondiscrimination guidelines that run counter to the beliefs of some religious groups.
This time the issue involves new regulations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for nongovernmental agencies that offer USDA-funded services — including school lunches, feeding programs for the elderly and summer camps.
The USDA policy prohibited discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation and marital/family status — an expansion of categories that troubled Agudath Israel of America. Agudah claimed the restriction about discrimination based on sexual orientation, in particular, would be offensive to many religious groups.
“The sexual orientation restriction, as applied to recipients of services, is one we don’t find in statute and regulation,” said Abba Cohen, the group’s Washington representative. “The department has taken it upon itself to add categories.”
Agudah, along with Catholic and Evangelical organizations, expressed its concern to USDA and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.
“What this statement did was extend that prohibition to anybody participating in a program under USDA auspices,” he said. “So Jewish schools that won’t hire homosexual teachers would not be able to get school lunches.”
Since there is no statutory base for that, Cohen said, the inclusion of sexual orientation was inappropriate.
Recently, USDA officials backtracked. “They sent a memo saying, essentially, that they’ll take out the categories we regard as offensive,” Cohen said. “This is an important victory for religious institutions that provide food and nutritional services to the community without in any way compromising their religious beliefs.”
Slow Advance On Auschwitz
The effort to remove hundred of crosses erected by Polish Catholic extremists — and to restart negotiations over the fate of the Auschwitz-Birkenau site — is inching forward. Last year, those negotiations broke down after the crosses were erected in defiance of government negotiations with Jewish groups and because of second thoughts by the World Jewish Congress, a member of the coalition talking to the Polish government.
Miles Lerman, chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and the lead negotiator, said this week that the Polish government is making slow but significant progress toward resolving the cross crisis.
“We have worked closely with the prime minister [Jerzy Buzek], and he has made it clear he has to do things legally,” Lerman said in an interview. “And we want to work in the proper framework, as well.”
Buzek’s government proposed a law turning over important death-camp sites and a buffer zone around each to federal jurisdiction, allowing Warsaw to remove the crosses and take steps to protect the integrity of other sites.
Late last week Lerman was notified that the Parliament approved the new law. The measure still must be approved by the Polish senate, but Lerman said that should be easier.
“Once it is signed into law, we have assurances the 300 crosses will be removed, which means we can return to the table,” he said. “It’s a first step in their official recognition that these places of martyrdom, where Jews were murdered, have to be treated in a special way.”
Meanwhile, Rabbi Avi Weiss, a New York Holocaust activist, continues to attack Lerman and the coalition. In a recent letter to Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, Rabbi Weiss expressed his disappointment that Meed was “prepared to sign an agreement with the Polish government that would leave standing the church at Birkenau, the 24-foot cross at the old convent in Auschwitz and would allow for a fast-food restaurant opposite the entrance to Auschwitz.
Lerman insisted that the negotiations are frozen until the 300 crosses are removed — and that after they resume “every outstanding issue” will be negotiated, including the so-called “Papal cross.”