Jerusalem (CNS) - As the fallout over President Clinton's comments on Palestinian refugees continued over the weekend, a former Israeli diplomat in Washington said incoming Prime Minister Ehud Barak would do well to take advantage of Congress' support in his future dealings with the United States.
Congress was "more hawkish on Israel's national security than recent Israeli governments - both Likud and Labor - have been," the diplomat told CNSNews.com.
Clinton's remark last week during a Washington press briefing -- that he would like to see Palestinian refugees free to live "wherever they like" -- caused an uproar in Israel, where many people see the issue (the refugees' right to return to homes they abandoned after Israel became a state in 1948) as one of the most explosive that remains to be resolved in negotiations.
Israeli media gave the incident - and reaction to it - considerable coverage. Some commentators, including those from major American Jewish groups, said the administration's subsequent attempts to clarify the comment were insufficient - that Clinton himself should make his position clear.
Following Barak's statement Friday that he rejected Clinton's apparent view on the refugees' right to return, administration officials scrambled to assure Israel and Jewish organizations that U.S. policy had not changed.
But although they said Washington remained committed to sticky issues being hammered out by the Israelis and Palestinians themselves, the fact that Clinton had - not for the first time - expressed clear personal sympathies with Palestinian positions rattled many in a country that sees America as its only true ally in an often hostile world.
Yoram Ettinger, a former top-ranking diplomat at the Israeli Embassy in Washington who served as a liaison with Congress, said after the row that Barak - who takes office Tuesday - should make greater use of the pro-Israel mood in Congress.
"Since 1948, and especially since 1994, Congress has been the bastion of pro-Israel opinions and positions in the U.S." he told CNSNews.com.
"More has been done for Israel-U.S. relations in Congress than at Foggy Bottom [State Department headquarters] or the White House."
"Barak should see Congress as a major source of support," Ettinger said, adding the hope that the new premier will be "skillful enough to take advantage of that reality."
"Over the last few weeks, Congress has pushed through measures involving an end to Syrian occupation of Lebanon, the extradition of terrorists linked to the murder of American citizens, and moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem," said Ettinger, noting that these were positions one did not hear often in Israel these days, "even in the Knesset."
"There is no love lost between the U.S. Congress and the Oslo/Wye agreements. The opposite is true: apathy, ambivalence, and opposition better describe the majority view.
"If the Israeli government would ever begin to appreciate the degree of support it enjoys from the American public and its lawmakers, it would have more courage to stand up for its positions," said Ettinger, a Mideast specialist at Israel's Ariel Center for Policy Research.
The Palestinian Authority warmly welcomed Clinton's refugee statement, as did Arab lawmakers in the Israeli Knesset.
In contrast, American Jewish representatives were shocked. The influential Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations sent Clinton a letter urging him personally to clear up the issue.
"Bias by this administration on a vital and fundamental security issue [would] raise Palestinian expectations and undermine the confidence of the people of Israel" in final-status negotiations, the letter warned.
"We hope that you will find the opportunity to publicly clarify your remarks and make clear that you do not endorse the right of return nor did you intend to prejudge this final-status issue."
Anti Defamation League president Abraham Foxman said that the genie had been let out of the bottle, and must be returned to it by the person who had rubbed the lamp.
American Israel Public Affairs Committee spokesman Kenneth Bricker said the president's comment was doubly alarming as it followed other steps deemed pro-Palestinian - Clinton's refusal last month to comply with a law calling for the U.S. Embassy to move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and his letter in May to PA Chairman Yasser Arafat expressing sympathy to Palestinian aspirations of statehood.
The recent NATO action in the Balkans, and Western commitment to ensure the return home of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians who fled Serb atrocities, has prompted debate in the Middle East about the Palestinian question.
Clinton's remark last week was in response to a reporter's question comparing the situations of the Kosovar and Palestinian refugees, and asking whether the U.S. would similarly work for the return home of displaced Palestinians.
Some commentators in the Arab world have accused Israel of crimes comparable to those perpetrated against residents of Kosovo, and say Israel should face similar punishment.
A writer in Egypt's Akhbar el Yom newspaper, for example, opined last week that "it stands to reason that the new world, led by the US and NATO, would just as equally use force to compel Israel to accept the return of Palestinian refugees, as it would wage war against the Serbs for atrocities committed against the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo."
Over the past half-century, Israeli governments have consistently rejected Palestinian refugees' "right to return," on the grounds the up to two million people now claiming that status would, if allowed to return, spell the end of the Jewish state.