Posted on December 30, 1996 in Washington Watch

President Clinton’s comments last week on Israel’s settlement policy created an internal debate in Israel and in the U.S. Jewish community. Despite the fact that Republican leaders of the Senate and House Foreign Affairs Committees attempted to undermine the President by writing to the Israeli Prime Minister pledging their full support, Israel public opinion was not reassured.

Although Arab critics viewed the President’s comments as timid, he did succeed in sending a signal that the Netanyahu government is on a collision course with the goals of the peace process and with U.S. policy in the region.

Whether the President’s warning itself will alter Israeli behavior remains to be seen, since it appears that the ideologically driven Netanyahu government is determined to pursue its own course and that includes rewriting the Israeli-Palestinian agreements to meet their ideological bent.

While the Israeli government reacted defiantly, at least publicly, to the President’s comments, Israeli opposition leaders and analysts were troubled. They were wary that by breaking trust with the U.S. and with the Palestinians the Netanyahu government was putting the peace process and U.S. support for Israel at risk. They further warned that the government’s continued aggressive settlement policy could provoke new violence and isolate Israel internationally.

Back in the U.S. the President’s comments also spurred debate within the Jewish community. While the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations urged their members to call the President and urge him to only criticize Israel privately, other important groups began a campaign urging their members to commend the President’s public criticism. And the leading organization of Reform Judaism issued a strong statement rebuking the Netanyahu government’s negative approach to the peace process.

The U.S. media appears to have been almost unanimous in its support of the President’s stand. For several days both before and after the President’s comments, major news papers’ editorials and commentaries strongly criticized provocative Israeli actions and supported a strong U.S. response to the Netanyahu government’s settlement policies.

It thus appears that whether or not the Netanyahu government has gotten the message intended by the President’s warning, the signal has been received by others and has already served to spark an important debate.

The effect of this should not be lost in the Arab world since it is a clear sign that this President, who has been routinely criticized for his failure to publicly challenge Israel, has sent a definite message. The President has shown that while he clearly prefers private to public diplomacy, with the peace process at risk, he will rise to its defense. Whether he will go further will depend on the Israeli response to his initial warning.

The President’s message should also help to provide some assurance to the Arab world that in his second term he will not abandon the search for a comprehensive Middle East peace.

Washington has been aware of the deep consternation caused in the Arab world by the President’s appointees for his second term’s national security team. That reaction has been its own form of wake-up call, exposing the deep political and psychological divide that exists in U.S. – Arab relations.

This reaction, of course, was largely focused on Ambassador Madeline Albright’s appointment as Secretary of State. While it was appropriate that critics note Ambassador Albright’s role at the United Nations in attempting to block the report on Israel’s bombing of Qana and her leadership in the effort to deny a second term to Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali as well as her often terse and unnuanced speeches on issues of grave importance to Arabs and Muslims, personal attacks against Ambassador Albright were clearly wrong and embarrassing.

Ambassador Albright’s marital status, religion (some critics incorrectly stated she was Jewish) and other personal matters should never have been discussed. In fact, when such things have been written by Americans against Arabs we have been justified in charging defamation. It is tragic when political commentary sinks to that level, especially when there are serious issues that could be debated. The lack of civility and disregard for facts displayed by some Arab writers only served to discredit genuine Arab concerns.

All this being said, it is to their credit that many in official Washington, including in the Ambassador’s own office understood that there is real Arab disagreement with the failure of the peace process to move forward and anger with the failure of U.S. policy to adequately take into account Arab needs in several areas. They appear to understand that the harsh reaction to Ambassador Albright was to some extent prompted by these frustrations—she unfortunately became the target.

The extreme attacks personally directed at Ambassador Albright may also be unfair for another reason. As United Nations Ambassador, she has been a messenger and implementer of U.S. policy, not its architect. As the senior foreign policy figure in the Administration, she will now play a leading role in shaping the policy directed by the President. In this new context her toughness may, in fact, be helpful in the pursuit of the peace process. She has pledged an open door to Arab Americans, and we will make every effort to work with the new Secretary of State to urge that her stated support for a comprehensive Middle East peace is in fact translated into policies that make that peace a reality.

For those who asserted that the Clinton Administration would not act to criticize Israeli leaders or be responsive to Arab concerns, this week has provided its own message of hope. The peace process may not be fully back on track with its momentum restored, but some wake-up calls have been sent and others have been received.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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