Posted on April 20, 1998 in Washington Watch

The Clinton Administration’s as-yet unannounced, but much talked about, proposal to break the impasse in the peace process may only call for an inadequate 13 percent Israeli withdrawal, but it has already created a war in Washington and deep divisions within the U.S. Jewish community.

The Netanyahu government is making a determined effort to block the U.S. proposal and not only because they are resisting new withdrawals in the occupied territories. As important to Israel is their determination that no U.S. Administration be seen to dictate terms to an Israeli government.

Since last fall, the Clinton Administration has been struggling to end the crisis impasse in the peace process. After a long pause in U.S. efforts, Secretary Albright visited the area in the fall and presented a set of U.S. principles to both the Israelis and Palestinians. She announced that that would be her last visit unless the parties were ready to accept the basic elements of the process and make a real effort to move it forward. Failing to make a break through during that visit, Albright said that she would give both Israelis and Palestinians a few weeks to decide and then meet with them in Europe.

Her intention at that time was that, if the parities refused to accept the steps that the United States felt would advance the process, the Administration would make public their proposals and let the world know why they had failed.

When the European meetings failed to achieve results, the fateful U.S. announcement was then postponed until after both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yassir Arafat met with President Clinton in Washington. That set of meetings also failed to secure an agreement (although by then it was fairly clear, though unstated, that the Administration was finding Israel to be the guilty party). Yet the Administration still hesitated to present the public proposal (to some extent due to the erupting scandals that were distracting all of Washington).

Throughout this period in an effort to secure some form of Israeli movement in the peace process, President Clinton has only used subtle forms of pressure. Always seeking to avoid a direct and public confrontation, for domestic political reasons, the President utilized a number of clever tools to make his point clear to Netanyahu and the Israeli public. For example, on one occasion, Clinton snubbed the Prime Minister, refusing to meet with him. To make the point even more clear, just a few days later, Clinton opened the White House to a day-long celebration with former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Mrs. Leah Rabin, wife of the slain former Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin.

On other occasions the President or his Secretary of State used Israel’s President Ezer Wiezmann or other prominent Israeli figures to send the message that Israel must honor the Oslo Accords and that until that occurs relations with the Prime Minister would be cool.

But all the while President Clinton was using his little tricks to send his message, Prime Minister Netanyahu was plotting his revenge and some tricks of his own.

Netanyahu’s goal has been clear: To tell the President to back off and not pressure Israel into making further and deeper redeployments.

By now Netanyahu has had months to prepare a counter attack. And attack he has.

On April 3, a group of 81 U.S. Senators (out of 100) sent a letter to President Clinton insisting that there be no public announcement and that Israel not be pressured to do anything against its will. The letter, mimicking the line of the Netanyahu government accuses the Palestinian Authority of stalling the peace process and not doing enough to control violence. The letter also sharply criticizes reports that the President may use the public announcement to find fault with Israel.

While the Senate letter and its companion letter from over 150 members of Congress were supposedly independent initiatives, AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), the pro-Israel lobby, threw its full weight behind this intensive campaign to intimidate the U.S. President.

An AIPAC action alert called on supporters to

    “call your member of Congress today to sign these important letters before any [Clinton Administration] plan is proposed…we must ensure that the government of Israel decides what is best for Israel’s security, not the U.S. State Department.”

At the same time, AIPAC used a weapon they ordinarily reserve only for major battles. They pushed their network of major campaign contributors to directly call members of Congress and insist that they sign the letters.

Their heavy handed effort while quite successful in coercing a majority of members of Congress to sign on, has not been well received within the broader U.S. Jewish community and is most certainly not appreciated by the Clinton Administration.

Most U.S. Jews support pressuring Israel (84 percent support the U.S. applying pressure to both Israel and the Palestinians) and, among Jews, Clinton’s popularity is double that of the Israeli Prime Minister. As a result, some Jewish groups attempted to organize a set of counter letters that were more balanced in their approach and more supportive of President Clinton’s efforts. One of those letters while only securing 33 signatures, did manage to obtain the endorsement of over two thirds of the Jewish members of Congress. And most major Jewish organizations, while not public in their criticism of AIPAC’s intentions and tactics in securing endorsements for their letters, were plainly displeased.

It’s not clear how the “battle of the letters” will play out. What is clear is that AIPAC and their pro-Likud allies have obvious abilities to mobilize support for Netanyahu and against a U.S. President, even one as obviously supportive of Israel as Bill Clinton.

At the same time, it is also clear how deep are the divisions within the Jewish community. A fax was sent last week to members of Congress who signed the pro-Clinton letter. The pro-Likud group that sent the fax threatened those who signed the “Clinton Whitewash letter” saying “they have signed their political death sentences.” The fax noted that “those Jews in Congress who signed the Clinton Whitewash letter must be defeated in November 1998.” This battle between pro-peace and pro-Likud American Jews will only intensify in the coming year.

What is also clear, is that in the short term these letters have at least, in part, accomplished their purpose. The Administration proposal will not be presented any time soon. For now the President will avoid a direct confrontation with the Senate. When 81 Senators speak, the President must at least listen.

And so the Administration will continue, as Secretary Albright noted last week, to pursue negotiations “privately without public disclosure of details.” But as she continued, in a veiled threat, “if, the parties remain at an impasse then, of course, we would have to make a judgment about how to proceed.”

But this, of course, is the same “judgment” we have all been awaiting since last fall.

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