US Aid to Israel, Used Well, Could Be Influence for Peace

Article excerpt

Israel's latest government crisis places a huge responsibility on Washington to do the right thing. It also gives President Bush an opportunity to take decisive action to help Israelis and Palestinians escape the cycle of violence in which they've been trapped for so long.

Israeli Labor leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer took his party out of the ruling coalition Oct. 30 over an issue familiar to members of previous US administrations: the question of how generously the Israeli government should fund the long-standing project to implant "Israelis-only" settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is an ardent, longtime supporter of the settlement project. Mr. Ben-Eliezer and others in the Labor Party agree with the long-held US view that the settlements constitute a real obstacle to peace. Labor left the Sharon government because Mr. Sharon insisted on keeping a special allotment of $145 million for the settlements in the budget he is now preparing, while Labor wants to use that sum to help fix Israel's tattered social safety net.

Washington is also an important participant in the discussion on Israel's budget priorities. Just two weeks ago, Sharon traveled to Washington cap in hand to ask Mr. Bush for a special, one-time infusion of aid to help Israel deal with its current economic nose dive. He reportedly requested as much as $10 billion for this purpose. (That would be over and above Washington's already generous donations of annual aid to Israel.)

Back in '91, an earlier Likud Party prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, also asked Washington for a $10 billion tranche of "one- time only" aid. That earlier request was for US guarantees for private-sector loans. The first President Bush responded to that request in a way that the present President Bush should consider emulating. The first President Bush told Mr. Shamir he could agree to Israel's special funding request - but would deduct from the aid an amount equal to what the US judged was being invested in the settlements.

Then, as now, Israeli elections were imminent. In 1992, Israeli voters faced a clear choice: There was Shamir, who seemed dedicated to supporting settlements, and thus to losing substantial US aid. And there was Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin, who promised to cut back on settlement aid and inject new life into a peace process that Shamir had been steering into a dead end. Mr. Rabin won handily.

The peace diplomacy that followed was by no means perfect. (And it suffered a terrible setback when Rabin was murdered by a Jewish- Israeli extremist in November 1995.) But in 1993, Rabin successfully broke the long-standing Israeli taboo that had until then prevented Israeli leaders from dealing directly with the Palestinians. …