Posted on February 01, 1993 in Washington Watch

The Israeli Supreme Court decision to uphold Prime Minister Rabin’s expulsion of 415 Palestinian to Lebanon has put President Bill Clinton in a very difficult situation.

The difficulty arises from two pledges made by the President during his campaign. On the one hand, he has repeatedly committed his Administration to be an “honest broker” in the continuing Middle East Peace process, a process he supports and wants to see succeed. On the other hand and especially during his campaign, he assured the American Jewish community that, unlike George Bush, he would avoid public confrontations with Israel. Clinton said that when differences arose between the United States and Israel, he would utilize private diplomacy instead of public pressure to resolve those differences.

In discussions with Administration officials and policy analysts this week, it has become clear how difficult Clinton’s dilemma is.

On the first issue—the peace process—there appears to be little room to maneuver. As a result of Rabin’s refusal to repatriate the expelled Palestinians, as called for in a unanimously endorsed UN Security Council Resolution, the peace process is in danger of an indefinite suspension.

This, of course, is distressing to the new Administration. Clinton has always supported the Bush-Baker diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, and his national security team has been preparing for the past several months strategies and new ideas designed to get the talks back on track. But those plans have been shelved for the moment, because Clinton and his national security team are managing a crisis instead of managing peace talks.

The Israeli argument that the expulsions were necessary step in support of the peace talks has never been accepted here. U.S. policy-makers are well aware that the expulsions have not only inflamed the region but also strengthened the extremists who oppose the peace talks.

Yet as difficult as fulfilling his pledge on the peace process has become, sticking to its second promise will extract an even higher price from the new Administration.

The United States suggested delaying Security Council action to enforce its resolution 799 in order to allow UN mediators time to seek a solution to the crisis. But after three failed missions to the region, UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has recommended that there be no more delays. He has proposed instead that the Security Council take strong action to force Israeli compliance with the earlier resolution to reverse the expulsion order.

Herein lies the President’s dilemma. He can support Security Council action against Israel, which would complicate the U.S. relationship with the Jewish state and its powerful U.S. domestic constituency. Or he can authorize a U.S. veto of Security Council action, which would effectively compromise U.S. standing in the world body and antagonize the Arab parties to the peace talks.

Since Clinton is savvy and wants to maintain his domestic political base, he is loathe to upset the pro-Israel component of the U.S. Jewish community this early in his Administration. However, two analysts in the Jewish community have made the observation that many in the American Jewish community are divided in their feelings and depressed over Rabin’s action. “They had,” said one of the analysts, “expected so much more from Rabin. They had hope in his government and now they are numb. That’s why so few voices are being raised in his defense right now.”

“If, however,” the analyst continued, “the UN imposes sanctions and the U.S. acts to isolate Israel, many Jews would reflexively support Israel.” As a result of these ambivalent feelings, many members of the American Jewish community are hoping that diplomacy will work to make the crisis “go away.”

The Administration is actively weighing the potential domestic damage of a veto with the even greater damage that such a veto would inflict on U.S. standing in the world body and to the UN itself.

As Secretary General Boutros-Ghali noted in his report to the Security Council, there is a growing perception—and not just in the Arab world but here in the United States as well—that the UN has a double standard when it comes to enforcing Security Council resolutions. Enforcement is vigorous against Iraq, lax in protecting Bosnian Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, and non-existent when it comes to Israel.

If Clinton’s broader foreign policy goals are to succeed, respect for the authority of the UN, human rights and international law must be maintained. The Administration does not want to undertake actions that would undercut the foundation and principles that are the keys to its own foreign policy.

In this regard, it is important to note that while Israel continues to maintain that the United States will certainly veto any Security Council Resolution, no U.S. spokesperson has said so. Instead they refer to that circumstance as a hypothetical situation which they assert they are working to avoid. The United States has not used its veto in the Security Council for more than two years, and the Clinton team has no desire to break that record in its first two weeks.

This is a difficult ordeal for the new Clinton foreign policy team to confront just days after taking power, and not one that pleases them.

Indeed, every policy-maker with whom I’ve spoken understands that this is a crisis brought on by Rabin’s action and his refusal to bend. While they all express understanding for the internal dynamics of Israeli politics and their distaste for UN action to punish Israel, they know that from their own perspective the best way out of this crisis is for Rabin to compromise and demonstrate a willingness to reverse the expulsions. A Security Council veto to protect an intransigent Israel for an illegal act would be a very tough vote to cast.

It follows, then, that the pattern the Clinton foreign policy team has chosen to follow is one featuring intense but quiet diplomacy: “jaw-boning” with Rabin to bring a resolution to the crisis so that the peace process can continue and a confrontation can be avoided. Regrettably, a confrontation still looms and some officials are disturbed that Rabin is “testing” the Administration.

Administration officials are less than delighted about the possibility that Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s first visit to the Middle East, and Prime Minister Rabin’s planned March visit to the United States, would take place under the cloud of explosive controversy. There is instead a sense that these diplomatic ventures and expenditures of political capital would be better used in pushing the peace process. And so in addition to making every effort to avoid a debate on sanctions at the UN, the Administration will continue to make every effort to push Israel to take the needed steps to diffuse the situation.

If Rabin refuses to bend on the expulsions, and if the U.S. cannot forestall UN action, President Clinton will be faced with an early test of his leadership in foreign affairs. It is one that he may not relish, but he will not be able to avoid it.


This crisis is only one of many that has hit the new Administration in its first week in office. At times the President and his chief spokesman, George Stephanopoulos, must have felt like soccer balls being kicked back and forth across the playing field of politics by numerous crises, the press and public opinion.

The ill-fated nomination of Zoe Baird for Attorney General; the divisive debate about ending the ban on homosexuals in the U.S. military; the controversy surrounding the Administration’s deficit reduction trial balloons (an energy consumption tax and freezing social security increases); and now the damage of a confrontation at the UN and a derailing of the Middle East peace talks—all these have prevented the Clinton Administration from taking control and establishing, as they had hoped to do, an early agenda for national renewal.

But through it all, the young President seems to be holding his own. As a few prominent Democratic analysts have noted, all these early trials and crises may serve his Administration well down the road. It is better, they advise, to make the difficult deals and make the hard mistakes early in your Administration. Then you can define your goals and establish your record as you move on.

Looking back, this is how Clinton won his campaign. Recall that, just one year ago in January of 1992, after revelations of alleged affairs and avoiding the draft, the pundits were writing that Clinton was finished. Clinton realized that these issues would not die of their own accord, and so he faced them down very publicly: the accusations of draft dodging he dealt with in a series of news conferences, and he went on national television before of millions of people to confront the allegations of adultery. These moves amplified the controversies for a time, but because he confronted them head-on, they did eventually died. From it all Bill Clinton emerged stronger than ever and went on to win in November.

And so, one year later, in January 1993 Clinton is again facing down controversies and marshalling his resources as he begins his new Administration.

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