Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Ultimatum That Causes Stir and Applause

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Ultimatum That Causes Stir and Applause

Article excerpt

The Ultimatum That Causes Stir and Applause

The ultimatum issued to Israel in February by Secretary of State James Baker created a stir and senatorial threats on Capitol Hill and broad applause throughout the United States, but it is clear from responses by editorial writers and commentators that its fundamental, crucial importance is not yet fully appreciated.

Baker issued this ultimatum during testimony before the foreign operations sub-committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. In his customary unemotional delivery, Baker said matter-of-factly that Israel must choose between settlements in the occupied territories and U.S. loan guarantees. He warned that Israel cannot have both. If it continues to build Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories it holds by force of arms, Israel will not receive the guarantees it wants to facilitate the financing of housing, highways and other infrastructure.

If Israel immediately halts the construction in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, the U.S. government will extend loan guarantees up to $2 billion a year. Baker added, however, an important provision.

Even if Israel halts this construction immediately, the U.S. government will deduct from the guarantees the value of all construction completed subsequent to Jan. 1, 1992. The language was unambiguous. Nor could anyone question that Baker spoke for President Bush. For months, ever since demanding that Congress delay consideration for 120 days, Bush had kept Israel guessing on his ultimate answer.

"The choice is Israel's," Baker told the congressmen. Democratic Rep. Larry Smith of Florida, self-proclaimed leader of the Jewish caucus in the House of Representatives, denounced Baker, asserting that the ultimatum disqualified the U.S. from the role of "honest broker" in the Arab-Israeli dispute. He asked why Baker would tie Israel's hands but not pressure Arab states for reforms.

"Nobody else is asking us for $10 billion in addition to the $3 to $4 billion we give every year (to Israel) with no strings attached," Baker responded while Smith fumed.

Overnight, Israel's lobby went into high gear, and the next day, before Baker could repeat his message on the other side of the Capitol building, several senators took turns denouncing the ultimatum. They warned that legislation to extend aid to the former Soviet republics-legislation requested by President Bush-would be held hostage until the administration accepts unconditional loan guarantees for Israel. Baker responded, "We have a right to know we're not going to be financing something that we oppose."

"We spelled out our policy," Baker said. "It is a proper policy."

Neither the U.S. Congress nor the state of Israel is used to such treatment.

Neither the U.S. Congress nor the state of Israel is used to such treatment. Just weeks ago, lobbyists for Israel announced they had secured signatures of more than 70 U.S. senators on a letter supporting unconditional loan guarantees.

U.S. congressional subcommittees dealing with Israeli aid requests are traditionally so compliant that members of Congress often privately refer to them scornfully as subcommittees of the Knesset.

During the eight years of the Ronald Reagan presidency, Israel's influence reached its zenith. The administration stood quietly by as Israeli warplanes supplied by the U.S. killed thousands of innocent civilians in the 1982 war on Beirut, then voiced scarcely a word of complaint as the Shamir regime began to build Jewish housing in the occupied territories at a feverish pace. …

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