Almost sixteen years ago, in the summer of 1977, I brought Menachem Begin, who had just been elected prime minister of Israel, an informal message from a friend in Jimmy Carter’s White House. The Americans, the message went, wanted Israel to feel secure from attack, but they could not possibly accept Likud’s ideological claim to the undivided land of Israel. If the new prime minister held to this claim, there could only be trouble between Washington and Jerusalem.

When I delivered this message Begin became somewhat agitated. Of course, he insisted, Israel’s security was his central concern, but he had to carry out the program of the Likud. He added that he was going to give the Jews of the Diaspora a better Zionist education than they had received from the Labor governments that had preceded his own. He would make them understand, and help make the American government understand, that Jews had the right to all the land west of the Jordan River, notwithstanding the Arabs who were living in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza district.

I believed that Begin meant what he said, but most of the leaders of the American Jewish organizations preferred to think that he and his Likud Party were simply hard bargainers who would lower the price when a deal had to be made. Many American Jews remember an uncle who sold goods from a pushcart, shouting high prices while ready to bargain down to get more than his customers would otherwise have paid. Begin and his successor, Yitzhak Shamir, looked and spoke as if they were part of the generation of Jewish immigrants to New York’s Lower East Side, who knew when to be tough in business, but also when to be pliant. But I had read Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Likud’s founder, and I had known Begin from his years in opposition. I had no doubt that he and Shamir were not to be confused with my uncle on the Lower East Side. They were ideologues, uncompromising believers in Jewish nationalism. When they said, as they repeatedly did, that not one inch of the land they claimed to have inherited from their Biblical ancestors could be given away, they were not speaking from a bargaining position; it was a principle at least as sacred to them as the Ten Commandments.

For the last fifteen years, policy makers in the US and, even more, the members of the American Jewish community, have clung to the hope that the Likud would ultimately turn out to be “reasonable.” This illusion was easy to maintain so long as the Palestinians refused to enter any negotiations unless they were, at the very least, promised a Palestinian state. But when the Palestinians said they were willing to talk about autonomy, and no longer insisted on a firm public promise of independence, that illusion ended.

It soon became clear to the American government that the Likud did not really want to talk about the peace plan that Yitzhak Shamir himself had first brought to Washington in the spring of 1989. Shamir had then suggested autonomy for the Palestinians, without defining what autonomy would mean. This vagueness made it possible for officials in the US and other countries to assume that Shamir’s offer would allow Palestinians to control some part of the territory of the West Bank and Gaza. Shamir’s gesture was good public relations: it kept alive the myth that the Likud would compromise. President Bush and Secretary of State Baker acted as if they believed Shamir, but as they became seriously engaged in trying to arrange negotiations in 1990 and 1991, they discovered that the Likud government really did not want to meet with the Palestinians to discuss the Likud’s own previous suggestions. It would negotiate only if it was faced with the threat that American financial support of Israel would be withdrawn.

By now even American Jewish leaders who used to insist that public criticism of Israel was a form of betrayal have begun to admit publicly what they have known privately: the Likud leaders are not proclaiming their intransigence over the West Bank simply to strengthen their hand when the time comes to bargain. They are willing to lose the store, provided they can hold onto the building and the land it stands on.

Begin and Shamir have succeeded in convincing a minority among American Jews to support their fierce nationalism. The core of this support is among Orthodox believers, among Holocaust survivors and their children, and among the neoconservatives, whose views are to be found, for example, in Commentary magazine. The fact that urbane, highly informed Palestinians have been pleading their cause in Madrid, Washington, and Moscow has made no apparent impression on any of these groups. To Shamir’s supporters, Haidar abd-el Shafi and Hanan Ashrawi are acting as a public relations front for unrelenting terrorism. In mid-January during the second round of talks in Washington, a bus carrying Israeli passengers on the way to a settlement in the West Bank was attacked and a number of passengers were wounded. Hanan Ashrawi immediately deplored the shooting, but the Israeli negotiator, Eliakim Rubenstein, insisted, on behalf of the Israeli delegation, that her apology was inadequate. Such acts of terror were a continuation of the intifada, which the Palestinians have not, he said, disavowed in its entirety, as the Israelis demand. In America, pro-Likud publicists keep echoing the position of the Israeli government that the unrest in the West Bank and Gaza results from the struggle between legitimate Israeli state power and terrorists; and that no one has the right to demand a precise accounting from Israel of the means being used to counter the attacks.


The attempt to blame Palestinian moderates for individual acts of Palestinian terrorism is the last line of defense of the Likud in American—and American Jewish—opinion. This screen of rhetoric has failed to hide Israel’s efforts to build settlements with thousands of new housing units on the West Bank, or the sight of Palestinians driven in the middle of the night from their homes in Silwan, an Arab village next to the wall of the old city of Jerusalem, while Jewish settlers moved in. Teddy Kollek, the internationally popular mayor of Jerusalem, led a protest against this callous use of force. That he was willing to take part in a demonstration, carrying a placard denouncing the new settlement, was, for American Jews, a telling rebuke to the self-righteous rhetoric of Likud apologists.

Even Israel’s most dogmatic supporters in America can no longer entirely brush aside the troubling thought that the Palestinians have good reason to be angry. Their human rights are being violated; they are being pushed about and treated inhumanely not just by the Israeli government’s efforts to suppress the intifada but as a result of the proclaimed policy of the Likud government to hold on to the West Bank and to increase settlements there—and in fact the government has been concealing the full extent of settlements. The contest going on within both American and American Jewish opinion is now between a fundamental commitment to human rights—including the right of the Palestinians to their own national identity—and the ideology of “the undivided land of Israel.”

Support for the Likud government is visibly shrinking in America. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll conducted over the weekend beginning Friday, January 17, showed that public support for ten billion dollars in US loan guarantees to Israel was surprisingly small. According to the poll 18 percent were in favor of the guarantees, 73 percent were opposed, and 9 percent not sure. In their column of January 25, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak reported the results of an earlier poll, taken in December, in which the question was asked: “Who is the more responsible for lack of progress toward peace in the Middle East, the Arabs or the Israelis?” For the first time, a plurality, of 41 percent, blamed the Israelis, while 27 percent blamed the Arabs. The columnists drew the conclusion that George Bush has a freer hand than any previous president to bring pressure on Israel, and that he has less to fear from the power of the Israel lobby.

The drop in support for Israel will, no doubt, be attributed by Likud apologists to the increasing preoccupation of Americans with their country’s domestic problems. In the past, however, even voters who were generally opposed to foreign aid believed that a special exception should be made for Israel. The unprecedented negative perception of Israel among American voters suggests that Begin’s efforts to explain what the Likud really stands for have for the most part been rejected by both the American government and a large part of the public.

It should be said that American Jewish opinion has not changed as radically, but even the official Israel lobby, the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), admitted in December that the American Jewish community was evenly divided between those who support the policies of the Likud government and those who do not. Considerable evidence indicates that this estimate is optimistic. For many years, as I have noted before in these pages, polls show that American Jews, by a margin of roughly two to one, have supported the exchange of “territory for peace” and have opposed annexation. But since these were the views of anonymous Jews who did not speak with any authority for the Jewish community they could be discounted. A few months ago, however, the leaders of the principal Jewish fund-raising organizations were polled by the Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies, a research group based in Los Angeles. This study found that those men and women who were doing the most to raise money for Israel were over-whelmingly—by four out of five—opposed to the policies of the Likud government.


When he was asked about this result, Yitzhak Shamir brushed it aside, maintaining that the Wilstein Institute was in the grip of “well-known leftwingers.” He was ill-informed. The directors of and contributors to the Wilstein Institute have close connections with the leaders of the Jewish Federation in Los Angeles and, nationally, with AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee. At the Institute’s most recent conference in Washington in December, such “left-wingers” as Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter were among the principal speakers (they were balanced, it is true, by outspoken opponents of Shamir). I have little doubt that Shamir knew this: he has been quoted repeatedly in the Israeli press recently as saying that he is willing to bend the truth if that will help to retain the soil of the undivided land of Israel.

By early January denying the obvious became more difficult for Mr. Shamir, as can be seen from the minutes, leaked to Ha’aretz on January 7, of a private New York meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Jewish leaders who have long been virtually undeviating supporters of the Shamir government were quoted as saying that the settlement policies of the Shamir government were a political disaster in America. While the Conference of Presidents has since formally endorsed the request for loan guarantees, some of its members, including the head of the American Jewish Congress, have publicly recommended that the Bush administration oppose the loans so long as West Bank settlements continue. The prime minister’s office has made no comment on the unprecedented waning of enthusiasm of a group that has always prided itself on being the backup singers in his band.

The schism I have described in the American Jewish establishment is bound to become deeper, and more bitter. In mid-February the major national Jewish organizations and dozens of local community councils are to attend, in Portland, Oregon, a meeting of the National Community Relations Advisory Council, an umbrella group set up to discuss Jewish domestic concerns. Two of the most important national organizations, the American Jewish Congress and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the organization of the Reformed synagogues), are, I am told, drafting a resolution calling on Israel’s government to stop settlement activity immediately. Shamir’s loyalists, who want no public disagreements among Jews on the subject of Israel, have been working feverishly to keep such a resolution from being put forward, or to delay action on it if it is brought to the floor. But Shamir’s supporters will not be able to control the statements that the dissidents will make at the meeting.

Members of the American Jewish establishment who would like to remain faithful to Shamir are thus facing unprecedented resistance. The mail that I have been receiving indicates that in many cities donors of substantial amounts both to fund-raising drives and to the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League are either refusing to give money or are using their gifts as an occasion to say that they do not approve of Shamir’s policies. The prime minister of Israel still commands considerable support among American Jews, but his public critics now include men and women who, for many years, would have refused to say a word publicly against him.

During a two-week visit to Israel in mid-January, I talked with Israelis of different views about their reaction to the radical change that is taking place in the relationship between American Jews and Israel. Jewish Israelis are all naturally eager to have the loan guarantees to support the hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants that have arrived in Israel or are expected to emigrate soon. Those who have supported the West Bank settlements as well, or who believe Israel should have loan guarantees in spite of them, claimed that American Jews are embarrassed to support the government in Jerusalem when it comes to a confrontation with Washington. I kept reminding them that in May 1967, Israel had the universal support of American Jews against the Johnson administration, which kept asking Israel not to go to war. American Jews then believed spontaneously in the justice of Israel’s cause. But most American Jews, so I argued, will not accept Shamir’s request to put heavy pressure on Bush both to guarantee loans and to tolerate settlements because they do not believe in the justice of Shamir’s cause.

Jews as a minority in the United States have spent the last century demanding equality for themselves. They have achieved it against the opposition of American nationalists, who insisted that Christians should have more rights than Jews. American Jews cannot now convincingly join with the Israeli government in denying equality to Palestinians in the name of Jewish nationalism. American Jews could avoid this issue so long as they believed that the suppression of the Palestinians was temporary, that it was caused by Palestinian intransigence, and that a balanced solution, recognizing both Jewish and Palestinian national rights, would eventually be negotiated. But the polls and divisions of opinion I have described suggest that most American Jews will not support the permanent suppression of the Palestinians when the intransigence of the Israeli government prevents a negotiated solution.

Still, the most serious strain in the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel is not caused by the current quarrel over the settlements. Israeli governments have believed that time was on their side, and that postponement of basic decisions about the future of relations with the Arabs—and particularly on the status of the occupied territories—was to Israel’s advantage. Especially since 1967, Israeli leaders thought that the political power of American Jews would remain more than sufficient to protect Israel’s interests in the US; and, after 1977, they were confident that American Jews would automatically defend the Likud’s ultranationalism. The Israelis believed that American society was permanently dominated by white Christians of European origin, by the descendants of people who had long historical connection with Jews and who harbor some guilt for Jewish suffering through the ages—and so support for Israel was “safe” in America.

This confidence is becoming less and less justified. By the year 2000, only 55 percent of those entering the US labor force will be white. Within a very few years thereafter, most American school children will not be of European origin. Today, seven of the ten largest American cities have a non-white majority within their city limits. The African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians who are increasingly numerous have no long history of connection to Jews, and they have no special sense of guilt or obligation toward them. On the contrary, in the jostling competition of American life, Jews, both in America and in Israel, are perceived by these newcomers to the political process as an elite to be challenged, not as an endangered species to be protected. Yitzhak Shamir could now make a deal with George Bush, an Episcopalian from the Northeast, but in not so many years, Israel might even be negotiating with a president who reflects a multiethnic coalition of nonwhite voters. The more perceptive Jewish leaders know that the clock of American politics is running toward a weakening of the “special relationship” with Israel.

Members of the American Jewish establishment, from right to left, also know that Israel is becoming a less powerful force within the Jewish community. In 1990 the Council of Jewish Federations made a demographic study of Jews throughout the US. The results were alarming: one out of every two Jews now marries a gentile, and every other index used to measure group loyalty shows a weakening of allegiance. Almost all Jews, including those who are not affiliated with organizations, remain committed to Israel, but their feelings are less intense toward it than they were twenty years ago. Fewer people would now support its positions unquestioningly. The deepest implication of the survey was that the Israeli cause was ceasing to be the “secular religion” of American Jews, although it remains the major concern of the Jewish organizations. A generation of impassioned effort on behalf of Israel has not prevented a substantial number of young people from taking a cooler view both of the Jewish state and of their own attachments to Judaism. Israel would therefore be better off if it made basic compromises with the Arabs soon, while the Jewish community in America, its main political asset, was still dominated by leaders in late middle age who are more intensely committed to Israel’s cause than the men and women of the next generation.

The radical shift of the American Jewish community away from Shamir was in large part the result of George Bush’s decision in September 1991 to link the loan guarantees to the cessation of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. This direct challenge to the central tenet of the Likud’s policy has also been transforming Israeli politics. The conventional wisdom has been, and continues to be, that the Likud cannot be beaten, but that assumption is now open to question. Labor, the main opposition party, is unpopular, although if Yitzhak Rabin wins the primary election for party leader over Shimon Peres, the party is likely to have a better chance in a general election. (In its platform Labor endorses “territorial compromise” on the West Bank and opposes both an independent Palestinian state and further settlements. The party has consistently interpreted the Camp David agreement as calling for territorial autonomy for the Palestinians, although it must be said that the Labor leaders have not given a detailed account of what they mean by it.) The religious parties are, and will remain, largely hawkish and firmly in the Likud’s camp. Nonetheless, in a survey which was published on the front page of Yedioth Aharonoth on January 17, the Dahaf polling organization found that an election would result in a dead heat between Likud and Labor, and the likely allies of each. A few days later, a poll showed that even the newly arriving Russians were moving away from the Likud. In all previous surveys, they preferred the Likud by almost two to one. Now they are nearly evenly divided between Likud and Labor.

Most of these new immigrants are unemployed, and they are aware that without American loan guarantees, their chances of getting jobs will suffer. The worsening economic crisis in Israel, moreover, is causing many right-wing Israelis to have second thoughts about the many hundreds of millions of dollars that have gone into the settlements and the billions more to be invested there. The governor of the Bank of Israel, Jacob Frenkel, has said that without loan guarantees Israel’s economic situation will become disastrous. People in the opposition I talked to all believed that the Likud could lose the election if the public came to see that one of the main reasons for Israel’s economic difficulties could be put clearly and unmistakably on its unrelenting obsession with constructing new settlements on the West Bank. At the least, the Likud could lose enough votes so that a national unity government with a more moderate foreign policy would have to be formed.

When I was in Israel members of the opposition kept insisting to me that while American help for Russian Jews was needed, it should not be given in ways that could be used by Shamir to prove that he was the Israeli leader who could stare down the United States and have his way on the West Bank. If Bush made loan guarantees depend on whether Shamir stops current construction on the West Bank, he would have more support both in Israel and in the US than he apparently thinks.

During 1990 and 1991 George Bush thus did much to transform the policies of Israel and its American Jewish supporters—but at the decisive moment, his nerve seems to have failed him. Shamir gambled that Bush, in an election year, would blink first and, according to what I have been told in Washington, Shamir is being proved right. Following the Madrid conference some high officials in the Bush administration prepared a plan under which the US would guarantee Israeli loans but would deduct from the amount guaranteed the costs of recent and future construction on the West Bank. A figure as high as $800 million was being widely mentioned as the amount to be deducted. There was even discussion of justifying this decision by publishing an account based on American intelligence information to prove that many more units are being built on the West Bank than the relatively small number that the Israeli government has been willing to acknowlege. Such action would have been a useful device to discourage further settlement and could have helped to advance negotiations.

In late January, however, Bush rejected this plan. He is now in trouble in the polls and he is said not to want an angry public controversy with the Israeli government in the months before the election. Bush, according to reports in the Israeli press, is offering Shamir a deal under which at least nine thousand of the new housing units that are under construction on the West Bank can be completed without reducing the loan guarantees, provided Shamir promises that no further housing starts will be made. The Israelis, moreover, will not even have to make this promise publicly and so will be able to preserve the fiction that they have not capitulated to demands to stop activities that the Americans hold to be illegal.

The details of this arrangement are still under negotiation as this essay is being written. According to the most recent leak from the negotiations, Israel will increase its imports from the United States by $2 billion a year beginning in 1993 and continuing for the five-year life of the loan guarantees, thus providing thousands of new jobs in America. The new American proposal, according to Ma’ariv of January 31, has accepted that Israel will, without paying any penalty, have the right, after the units under construction are completed, to continue to build roads and other infrastructure, as well as to replace trailers with permanent dwellings and to increase the size of existing settlements. According to Thomas Friedman’s article in The New York Times of February 5, the American position is somewhat different: if Israel does not limit itself to finishing the nine thousand units now being built, the cost of additional construction would be deducted from the loan guarantees. In any case, there may be some reduction from the total amount for the first year, perhaps of $500 million, which Shamir will be able to explain as owing to American economic difficulties and to the fact that Russian immigration is now down to a rate of five thousand a month.

In both versions, the American offer sounds almost too good to be true. Nonetheless, sources close to Shamir tell me that they do not expect him to agree without demanding even more. Shamir is now promising in public that he will not use any of the money from the loan guarantees for settlement activities. Writing in Ha’aretz on Friday, January 24, the columnist Yoel Marcus drew a contrast between “Dr. Yitzhak and Mr. Shamir.” On the one hand Shamir had recently told a meeting of settlers that “no power in the world will stop us from continuing the policy of settlement.” On the other hand he is, according to reports published in Israel, assuring the Americans that he will take some as yet unspecified steps to freeze settlements. Marcus believes that the real Shamir was the one speaking to the settlers. At any rate, just what a freeze on settlements would really mean is being left undefined by tacit agreement on both sides.

Shamir therefore can expect an important victory in his battle with Washington. According to several reports, the details of the deal will remain under negotiation until after the Isreali elections on June 23, 1992. This serves Shamir’s immediate purpose, which is to win the election. He can claim that Washington has dropped its insistence on a freeze of settlements and that he has made no constraining promises for the future. Ehud Olmert, Shamir’s minister of health and one of his closest advisers, told Ha’aretz on January 26 that the American offer was a “victory for Shamir” because the Americans had abandoned their opposition to all further building on the West Bank. Shamir can further claim that the peace process he has agreed to has been so slow moving that the right wing can be assured that nothing significant was going to happen for a long time—and by then there would be many more Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Bush, in effect, is handing Shamir the Israeli election. He can hardly believe that Shamir, once reelected, will be more willing to negotiate with the Palestinians than he has been before. But unless Shamir’s demands cause American officials to lose their patience, it now seems very likely that Bush’s decision to guarantee the loans will stand.

The reasons for Bush’s decision to accommodate Shamir are not entirely clear. Some maintain that he wants the peace negotiations to continue, and he is afraid that a direct confrontation with Shamir will give the prime minister cause to refuse to take part in future talks. Shamir might perhaps then win the election by campaigning against an American president who would deny Israel its sovereign right to do what it pleases. I do not believe this explanation. Bush’s advisers are well aware of the same polls that I have cited. They know that the Israeli election will mainly turn not on national pride but on Israel’s urgent economic situation. As Bush’s entourage knows very well, a leader who cannot take care of basic economic needs does not long remain a hero. Even more important, Bush has had enough experience with Israel to know that if Shamir is reelected, a Likud government with a renewed mandate will not be inclined, or even able, to keep any promises that it might make now about limiting future settlement activity. Its partners on the right will continue to send more mobile homes to the West Bank and will insist on converting them into permanent housing. Giving Shamir the loan guarantees before the election will no doubt keep him negotiating about peace for the next few months, but Shamir, when reelected, will be an even more difficult partner for peace negotiations than he is now.

The more believable reason for Bush’s decision is to be found, as prominent Jewish Republican leaders have told me, in domestic political calculations. As he faces a tough campaign, Bush apparently believes he needs the votes of the minority of Jews, about 30 percent, who vote Republican. And most Jewish Republicans are ardent supporters of the hardline parties in Israel, whether the Likud itself or the religious groups. It does not matter that Bush’s attempts to bring about peace negotiations in the Middle East have been supported by many other Jews. He believes that most Jewish moderates or doves will vote against him anyway next November because they are traditionally Democrats.

Thus a deal has apparently been made. Bush is willing to climb down from the tough position that caused him to delay the loan guarantees, and Shamir’s loyalists in the United States will support him in the November elections. And so what seemed a serious opportunity to advance the possibilities of peace is being lost. Will Bush really be better off next November with perhaps 200,000 more votes from Jewish Republicans, or by being the leader who consistently exerted pressure to bring about peace in the Middle East? Bush’s de facto surrender to Shamir is not only bad statesmanship; it is also bad domestic politics.

Flying back to the United States from Israel I felt troubled enough to reread Flavius Josephus’ account of the Jewish War, the years 66–70, during which the Romans destroyed Judea and razed Jerusalem. This ancient story seemed more frightening now than it had before. Josephus told of the heroism of the Jews, and of their considerable power in Judea, which they had pushed beyond its limits:

Deceivers and imposters, under the pretense of divine inspiration which was fostering revolutionary changes, persuaded the multitude to act like madmen and led them into the desert under the belief that God would then give them tokens of deliverance.

Shamir himself is a secular ultranationalist, but he and his party are almost indissolubly linked to messianic believers who are certain that God himself guarantees the immediate future of the Jews in all of the Holy Land. One can only hope that Israel, by a majority vote in the next election, can disregard the deal between Bush and Shamir and find its way back to rational politics.

—February 6, 1992

This Issue

March 5, 1992