Posted on January 25, 1999 in Washington Watch

The Israeli elections are an issue of great concern in the United States, engaging policy makers and important segments of the American Jewish community.

For U.S. policy-makers the elections pose a serious dilemma, because as the campaign in Israel heats up, the Middle East peace process has been put on the back burner. This displeases the Clinton Administration both because they invested significant political capital in attempting to put the process back on track and because they are acutely aware of the dangers posed by a stalled peace.

Although he signed the agreement at Wye, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appeared to have little interest in seeing the agreement implemented. No sooner had he returned to Israel upon completing the negotiations with the United States and the Palestinian Authority, than he began to add new conditions to and reinterpret the pact unilaterally.

Despite Netanyahu’s rhetorical prevarications (as in “If the Palestinians will implement, I’ll implement”) no one in Israel or in the Untied States seriously believes him anymore. In fact, as if to make clear his refusal to implement the pact’s most basic provisions, i.e. Israel’s withdrawal from additional West Bank land, Netanyahu’s election campaign has unfurled a new slogan for use against his Labor Party opponent Ehud Barak–”Barak will hand over, Likud will keep”.

In the face of this blatant obstructionism, the United States appears to be in a quandary. On the one hand, it is no secret that the Untied States would prefer to see a new government elected in Israel, one that is committed to a comprehensive peace. There is, however, an obvious hesitation in making this preference public for fear that it will backfire and be used to incite Likud supporters.

Those in the United States who express this view point out two additional concerns. In 1996 the Clinton Administration showed preference for Labor’s Peres over Netanyahu. They fear that not only did their intrusion into Israeli politics backfire, but it has also made the past two-and-one-half years of dealing with Netanyahu more difficult. Then, there is the issue of domestic U.S. politics. American Jewish public opinion, while strongly supportive of the Administration’s peace efforts, is not of one mind in the matter of the U.S. publicly attacking the government in Israel. And the Republican majority in Congress has been especially clear about its support for Likud and its leader. That Republican majority and a number of Democrats as well would not hesitate, if pushed, to pass hostile legislation making the Administration’s Middle East diplomacy even more difficult than it already is.

Despite this quandary, the Administration has not hesitated to make its views known. While in Israel and Palestine, President Clinton was confronted at each turn by Netanyahu’s anti-peace rhetoric. In each instance, Clinton, while refusing to respond in kind, did make a determined effort to firmly and pointedly reassert the fundamental principles underlying the peace process.

When, a few weeks ago, the Israeli Ambassador to Washington published an editorial denouncing the Palestinians for their failure to comply with the terms of the Wye Accords, he was rather sternly rebuked by the State Department’s Spokesperson Jamie Rubin. Rubin, in no uncertain terms, stated that it is the Palestinians who have implemented most of what is required of them and Israel who has not fulfilled its obligations.

And just last week, Vice President Al Gore, one of Israel’s strongest supporters, gave an exceptionally balanced presentation of the Administration’s goals in the Middle East peace process in a speech to a pro-Labor Party American Jewish organization. The speech, which was criticized by a pro-Likud U.S. group for its “implicit criticism” of the Netanyahu government’s policy, stated clearly that Wye must be implemented in full by both parties, “with no new conditions”.

Together with these policy statements there are also other actions being pursued by the Administration designed to move the process forward during the Israeli election. A State Department team has just returned from a visit to the region where they made clear that they expect movement to continue on all phases of the agreement. Early next month the U.S.-Palestinian bilateral commission will meet in Washington to further cement ties and advance Palestinian economic and political concerns.

And the Administration is actively pushing for congressional passage of a supplementary aid package to Israel and the Palestinian Authority–that, it insists, at this point, will only be made available to the party or parties that implement their obligations outlined in the Wye Accord.

It is not only the Administration that is engaged. The American Jewish community is involved in activities related to the Israeli election as well.

For example, as in the past few elections, major American Jewish donors have played a significant role in funding Israeli candidates. In 1996, for example, more than $8 million was sent from U.S. Jewish donors to Israeli parties and their candidates. This year, the amounts may be higher despite a new Israeli law that was designed to limit such outside funding.

Irving Moskowitz, the notorious right-wing provocateur (infamous for funding the tunnel opening and Ras al Amoud settlement) just visited Israel with a group of wealthy extremist U.S. Jews to pledge financial backing to hard-line candidates who oppose concessions to the Palestinians. Benny Begin, son of the former Prime Minister, has reportedly received $1 million from Moskowitz to fund his right-wing challenge to Netanyahu.

Next week, the new Israeli centrist party leader Amnon Shahak will be in the United States, ostensibly to speak to a few policy groups, but in reality to raise money for his campaign.

If U.S. money will fund the campaigns, then U.S. strategists will be directing them. Netanyahu has already retained his electoral guru Arthur Finklestein, a New York Republican who has managed a number of leading U.S. Republican campaigns. Labor’s Barak has hired James Carville and Stanley Greenburg–the U.S. team that played a role in President Clinton’s 1992 victory. It is interesting to note that in a weird chain of events in the past few weeks the offices of five of Barak’s campaign aids in Israel have been subjected to mysterious break-ins and robberies. During the same period, on two occasions, Stanley Greenburg’s Washington offices’ were also broken into. All that was reported stolen in both instances were materials relating to the Barak campaign. In Israel this is being reported as a “Watergate”-style affair–referring to the similarity between these bizarre break-ins and the 1972 Nixon campaign break-ins of the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Building in Washington.

In all of these ways there is a significant U.S. involvement attempting to shape the outcome of this year’s Israeli elections. The outcome of this election could be, of course, quite serious for the future of peace in the region. Hence the intense involvement of so many.

However, whether or not the outcome of the election will be positive or decisive given the fragmentation of Israeli politics and the intense discussions in Israeli society is another matter–one to be explored in a future article.

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