Posted on May 11, 1998 in Washington Watch

In September 1993 one half of Israel began a peace process with the Palestinian people, the outcome of which, unstated , was inevitably to be a Palestinian state.

The weakness of the Rabin government and pressure from Israel’s right-wing parties and settlers repeatedly stalled implementation of that process and ultimately distorted it.

Violence from both Israeli and Palestinian extremists further impeded forward movement. The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli right-wing extremist and grievous miscalculations by his successor Shimon Peres (most notably the assassination of Yahia Ayyash and the bloody assault on Lebanon) led to the election of the Israeli coalition that was determined to end the process once and for all.

The goal of the Clinton Administration, since the 1996 election of a Likud government, has been to push the other half of Israel to continue the peace process despite this Likud government’s lack of commitment to its basic premises and its ideological opposition to the process’s necessary outcome, a Palestinian state.

For at least nine months now the parties have been engaged in an excruciating and frustrating “soap opera” –like scenario in which the Clinton Administration has attempted to nudge the Netinyahu government to implement the Oslo Accords and restart the peace process.

In some ways these efforts by the Clinton Administration have resembled some of the efforts made by the Bush Administration as it attempted to prod the Shamir government to participate in the Madrid Conference.

Domestic US pressure and the hesitancy to enter into an outright confrontation with both the Israeli government and its powerful US allies are factors that all US governments consider when dealing with the Middle East. And so for months now the process has dragged on from one supposedly fateful meeting to the next – with no apparent progress. And yet there are some interesting twists and turns that have evolved out of all of this.

The Administration insists that it is not applying pressure. Nevertheless what has transpired can only be described as pressure. The President has repeatedly snubbed the Israeli Prime Minister (while denying any snub was intended). And in private conversations the President has let it be known that he is growing increasingly frustrated with Netanyahu’s behavior. The President’s public comments, especially those in the presence of Israelis and American Jews have continued to focus on the need to move toward the vision of Israel’s Labor government. For her part, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has continued to cajole Jewish leaders to support the US Administration’s efforts.

After last week’s “fateful” London meeting proved unproductive, the Administration announced yet another fateful meeting, May 11, in Washington. It does not take a cynic to dismiss this as yet one more delay born of appeasement and the fear of confrontation. And yet some interesting shifts have occurred which should be noted.

Following the London talks, Albright’s carefully nuanced public statements indicated some of these shifts. For one, she did not utilize the now familiar “both parties must decide” approach. The US press got the message. The next day’s headlines were clear: “Israel must decide” and “Albright presses Israel to decide”.

Secondly, The Secretary rejected Netanyahu’s argument that in accepting the US proposals he would be endangering Israel’s security. In a delicately worded statement she made it clear that the greatest danger to Israel would come if the peace process were to collapse.

Finally, the US announced that the invitation to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to meet in Washington was conditional on their acceptance of the US proposals. Since, as the Secretary made clear, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat had accepted them, the pressure was focused on Netanyahu.

The domestic response from Israel’s US allies and from the Israeli government itself has been predictable. Netanyahu flew back to Israel from London and denounced US pressure declaring that “Israel is a sovereign country” and would not accept dictates from anyone. US Jewish groups were divided, even in their public pronouncements, with some supporting the US President’s position and others mimicking the Likud line.

The harshest criticism came from the Republican Congressional leader Newt Gingrich who denounced President Clinton, accusing him of “blackmailing Israel” and “ganging up with Arafat” against the Jewish state.

President Clinton attempted to sidestep the criticism the by asserting, as he has continuously done, that he is pressuring no one, but merely attempting to advance the movement toward peace.

Possibly the most interesting twist in this entire episode came in the form of remarks made by First Lady Hillary Clinton. Speaking by satellite to a group of Israeli and Arab teenagers gathered in Switzerland, the First Lady referred to “Palestine” and expressed her belief that for the peace process to succeed in the long term, Palestinians must have a state “on the same footing as any other state in terms of dealing responsibly with all the issues state governments must deal with”.

While the White House and State Department quickly announced that Mrs. Clinton’s views were her own and did not represent any change in official policy, no one believes that her carefully crafted comments were unintentional.

On the very next day, the President’s appearance before an Arab American audience (the first ever by any US President) provided him with an opportunity to speak of his hope that the peace process will advance.

He spoke movingly of the “peace loving peoples in the Palestinian areas and in Israel and pointedly referred to the fact that “opportunities do not last forever. They must be seized”.

At the end of his remarks, the President urged Arab Americans to “remain resolute and remain passionate. Do not”, he concluded, “give away the best part of your hopes. We will prevail.”

In private conversation, the President displays deep understanding of the current situation in the occupied Palestinian lands and the political situation within Israel. He speaks passionately of the pain endured by the Palestinian people who have become poorer and lost hope since the peace process began. He also clearly understands the intricacies of internal Israeli politics. His goal is to continue to prod the other half of Israel into accepting the necessity and benefits of reaching a just peace with the Palestinians – a peace based on the agreements reached in Oslo.

At this point, a Monday meeting is not a certainty. The Israeli Prime Minister remains intransigent and committed to his narrow coalition government. Still President Clinton’s efforts, while not satisfying his Arab critics, have stirred up an intense debate within Israel and the American Jewish community.

Clearly the US Administration can and must do more. Recent polls conducted for al Majallah and the Washington-based Arab American Institute (AAI) make clear that by a margin of two to one US public opinion would support pressure against the Israel government. If Netanyahu continues to stall or redefine the terms of the Oslo Accords, US pressure must move beyond the subtle and clever to more direct and decisive statements. In the end, it was such directness that moved both Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. The endless game of “fateful meetings” must end.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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