Posted on March 06, 1995 in Washington Watch

The issue of whether or not to use public pressure to affect Israeli government actions and/or policies is one that confronts every U.S. Administration.

On the single issue of granting $10 billion in loan guarantees to the Israeli government in 1991, the Bush Administration used such pressure. The effect of this tactic on the U.S. Jewish community was somewhat traumatic, but it succeeded in forcing a debate within the Israeli body politic, and ultimately achieved a democratic change of government in Israel.

While many of Israel’s supporters continue to deny that Bush’s actions contributed to Rabin’s victory over Shamir and the Likud, there is no doubt that the question of the worsening of U.S.-Israeli relations brought on by Shamir’s policy fit in with Rabin’s campaign themes and played an important role in his electoral success.

The fight over the loan guarantees, however, was a single exceptional act of the U.S. Administration. As soon as Rabin was elected, the Bush Administration approved the loan guarantees to Israel on terms that provided significant loopholes in implementation. In doing so, Bush failed to take advantage of the change in attitude his action achieved, actually giving the Israelis more generous terms than the Congress wished to impose.

The question of whether or not to use public pressure in dealing with Israel has been an issue for President Clinton as well.

In 1992, seeking to establish the differences he had with the Bush Administration, then Democratic candidate for President Bill Clinton remarked that as President, he would not use public pressure to alter Israeli behavior. Specifically referring to Israeli settlements and the question of guaranteeing loans for Israel, Clinton stated:

“Certainly the settlement policy [of the Israeli government] has not been helpful to the peace process,” but “what I would do in private is different from what I would do in public.”

In fact, on most Middle East issues, candidate Clinton (and, since the election, President Clinton) has followed the same basic approach outlined by his predecessor in the White House. The one glaring difference is that one-time use of public pressure by the Bush Administration on the Shamir government.

Clinton’s commitment to refrain from using public pressure has characterized the way his Administration has dealt with the Middle East peace process since the 1992 election.

During his confirmation hearings before the Senate, U.S. Ambassador to Israel designate Martin Indyk spoke of this commitment as one of the 5 operating principles that the Clinton Administration has “established for the conduct of relations with the state of Israel.”

In his Senate testimony Indyk, who for the past two years has served as Director of Near East and South Asian Affairs on President Clinton’s National Security Council, said:

“The fourth guiding principle is that in pursuing this peace, and in recognition of the fact that Israel is our democratic ally with which we share common values and common interests, this administration will work with the government of Israel, not against it. Where we have differences, as is inevitable, even with the closest of allies, we will work them out in private, and we do work them out in private.”

While this policy has its strong supporters within the Administration, there are also some who question it as well. But the proponents of no pressure hold sway in the policy debates. Their view is based both on their perception of what they view as “real politics” (after all, they might suggest, look at the political price Bush paid for his one-time act of alienating Israel’s supporters) and a deeply held belief that given the volatility of Israeli politics, more can be accomplished with quiet diplomacy. I believe that both of these viewpoints are misguided.

An analysis of the U.S.-Israeli relationship since the election of Rabin in mid-1992 shows a remarkable consistency between the Bush-Baker and the Clinton-Christopher tenures. When necessary, Clinton denied Israel and its supporters favors they sought. For example convicted spy Jonathan Pollard was not released, the sale of supercomputers to Israel was denied, and Indyk himself took a strong stand in cautioning the U.S. Senate against taking steps to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

Even Secretary of State Christopher’s handling of Rabin’s outrageous expulsion of 400 Palestinians to Lebanon bore a strong similarity to Baker’s ultimate compromise with Rabin on the issue of settlements and loan guarantees. In both cases, the U.S. agreed to accept short-term violations of rights in an effort to secure long-term Israeli compliance with a principle.

While the Clinton Administration does prod Israel on a regular basis, it does so very quietly and out of public view on issues affecting the peace process and Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians.

And, of course, the fact remains that the peace process is in deep trouble. New settlements are being built, Arab Jerusalem has become a virtual no-man’s land, and Israel’s extreme preoccupation with security has frustrated even the most modest Palestinian hopes for the peace process.

Intense public pressure, both Israeli and U.S., is placed on PLO Chairman `Arafat to take stern measures against his domestic opposition – and not only those who commit acts of violence. And today the right-wing opposition in Israel is the driving force in that country’s political debate; that is, while the Rabin government attempts to hold its line, it is forever responding to Likud attacks on its policies and challenges to its legitimacy. As a result, Rabin is frequently forced to accommodate this pressure from the right by shifting his policy rightward.

All of this is, in fact, due to the absence of U.S. pressure on Israel and its policies which negatively impact chances for peace. Such U.S. pressure, if applied would once again force the Israelis themselves to debate their actions affecting the peace process, and could actually provide a counterweight in Rabin’s favor against the Likud charges.

Not all Clinton advisors or supporters of Israel agree with University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Professor Steven Speigel (who advised the Clinton foreign policy team during the 1992 Presidential election). Speaking recently at a forum at the UCLA School of Law, Speigel spoke favorably of what he termed the Clinton Administration’s “laissez faire” stance toward the peace process, and contrasted it with what he called the negative Bush-Baker interventionist policy. It was this “hands-off” approach which Speigel credited with bringing the Israelis and PLO to Oslo, bring the Israelis and Jordanians together, and so on.

While I would argue vehemently against this view, it is important to note that not all Israelis or even Jewish American Clinton advisors agree with Speigel’s assessment.

At an earlier time in the peace process (November of 1992), Israeli columnist Ran Kislev wrote in Ha’aretz of the need for U.S. public pressure to move Israel toward a peace settlement. Kislev wrote, in part:

“A government moving in such a direction will have to face tremendous domestic pressure, not only from the settlers, who are threatening civil war, or the Likud, which is ready to lead thousands into the streets, but pressure from within the government and Labor’s lively hawkish camp. The government will need counter pressure, not necessarily of the kind inherent in the empty threats of Peace Now. What is needed is pressure from a position of strength – that is, U.S. pressure.”

Professor Michael Mandelbaum, another 1992 Clinton advisor, has also noted earlier examples of successful U.S. public pressure leading Israeli governments to do what they needed to do. Describing U.S. pressures on Israel in 1975 to achieve a disengagement agreement with Egypt, Mandelbaum observed:

“Israel’s leaders were not altogether unhappy with [U.S.] pressure. They wanted agreement with their neighbors…but this required concessions and the Israeli public was wary of surrendering territory….. The government found it convenient to blame American pressure, which they could say left them no choice but to yield.”

In the absence of a strong public critique of Israeli actions not only Palestinians, but also Israelis who want this peace process to work, stand defenseless against an angry and frightened public opinion that is incited by the demagoguery of the leaders of the Israeli right wing.

The distortion in the Palestinian and Israeli societies which result from this absence of pressure on Israel has in turn set the stage for a tragedy. The window of opportunity that exists for the peace process is rapidly closing. It will not be so easy to recapture the hope brought on by the handshake on the White House lawn almost 18 months ago.

If this moment passes, I fear that there will be serious negative consequences for the entire region and for the U.S. role in the Middle East. There are those in the Administration who truly understand the nature and the depth of this crisis and the urgency of the response it requires.

Of all the tools at their disposal to combat this crisis, the mechanism of public pressure is glaring in its absence. In an effort to bring it to bear on the problem, it is worth noting that such pressure need not be negative and critical. It could be positive and constructive – but it must be used. It would be an important complement to the other political and economic assets in the Administration’s arsenal.

It is essential that such pressure be brought into the equation. Because only a strong external pressure can alter the negative public debate that is disabling both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. And only a change in the distorting debate in Israel can restore a sense of hope and a vision of the possibilities of peace.

For comments or information, contact

comments powered by Disqus