Monday, January 22, 2001

Pro-Israeli lobbying groups in Washington are quietly fretting that the new Bush administration, with strong links to the Middle East oil industry, will be less supportive of Israel than the outgoing Clinton team.

“There are elements in the American Jewish community who are nervous about the incoming administration,” said Lewis Roth of Americans for Peace Now, a liberal pro-Israel lobbying group.

Morton Klein, head of the conservative Zionist Organization of America, put it in even stronger terms.

“We do have concern that some of the names being mentioned for top posts of [President] Bush’s Mideast team are names from the past which reflect the same old tired thinking that appeasing [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat and the Arabs will bring peace,” he said.

Efforts to broker an agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis continued yesterday as negotiators from both sides opened talks in Egypt. They were expected to discuss proposals Mr. Clinton put forward in December, but neither side gave good odds to the chances of a breakthrough.

“We must not bury our heads in the sand. The chances of overcoming the differences in the short time we have left are not very high,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said.

He has called new elections for Israel in the face of the ongoing violence between Israelis and Palestinians, which has killed more than 380 persons, most of them Palestinians, since it erupted nearly four months ago. Mr. Barak is being challenged in the elections by hard-liner Ariel Sharon.

The Zionist Organization of America has criticized Mr. Clinton’s executive team, which Mr. Klein called “one of the most pro-Arab administrations since the re-establishment of the state of Israel.”

But Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said that U.S. backing for Israel had remained constant over changes of administration.

“We are not prejudging anybody,” he said from New York by phone last week. “There is a dynamic to American foreign policy toward Israel that is likely to continue. We should not come to conclusions before [Mr. Bush] takes office. It would be imprudent and unwise.”

Mr. Roth said he was not personally concerned about the Bush administration but that he was getting e-mail messages and hearing “rumblings out there” from people who fear the new team will be more pro-Arab and less sensitive to Israeli concerns.

Pro-Israel groups “perceived the policies of the first Bush presidency as being anti-Israel, and some of the same people who worked in that administration are going to be closely affiliated with this one,” Mr. Roth said.

Both Mr. Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney have worked with oil industry firms with huge investments in oil-producing Arab countries.

“People look at the close connection between [Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney] and the oil industry and it makes them nervous about how the Bush people will approach the region,” Mr. Roth said.

Concern also is apparent inside Israel, where the Jerusalem Post recently made major news of a speech at Tufts University by Colin Powell, now secretary of state, five days before the U.S. election in November.

It noted that Mr. Powell’s hefty speaking fee was paid from a fund subsidized by Issam Fares, the billionaire deputy prime minister of Lebanon.

Other sources in the Jewish and pro-Israel community noted that the Bush Cabinet has no Jewish member and worried that, since only 22 percent of American Jews voted for Mr. Bush, he will be less sensitive to their concern for Israel’s security.

One official of a pro-Israel group, who spoke on the condition he not be identified, said the Republican Party traditionally has focused on the Persian Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, when they consider the Middle East.

“There’s more curiosity than anxiety maybe some anxiety,” he said.

A group including former diplomats and CIA officials from several Republican and Democratic administrations last week proposed a dramatic shift in U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

• This story is based in part on wire service reports

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