Posted on April 19, 1999 in Washington Watch

Two of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent election-related gambits have earned him rather strongly worded public rebukes from the Clinton Administration.

The Netanyahu ploys had been designed to help him shore up support from two voting groups, both of which are vital to his reelection effort. One of these efforts targeted the settlers’ movement and their ideological allies, the other was directed at recent Russian immigrants.

In the past, Netanyahu could have taken the support of both groups for granted. Not this year. In the first round of the election for Prime Minister, in addition to facing candidates from the Labor Party and Center Party (Ehud Barak and Yitzak Mordechai), Likud’s Netanyahu is also facing a challenge from the right–the Herut Party’s Benny Begin. Joining Begin’s campaign are many of the old leadership of the Likud, who have bolted the party stating that they can no longer trust Netanyahu’s leadership or his honesty.

Fearing that hard-line voters may abandon his camp for the more “pure” Begin, Netanyahu has allowed settlers to intensify their expansion activity in recent months. It will be recalled that shortly after signing the Wye Memorandum, Netanyahu’s Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon returned to Israel urging settlers to seize as much land as possible, telling them that

    The time is coming when whatever we take, will be ours, and whatever they take, will be theirs. Whoever can help in this, should help. With cunning you should fight wars.

It now appears that the settlers have done just that.

Not only has government-sanctioned settlement building intensified at an unprecedented rate (settlement construction in the West Bank increased 105% over last year), but at least 15 new hilltops have been taken over by settlers in recent weeks, apparently with strong support from Israel’s government. U.S. satellite data, revealed last week, provided evidence that the Israeli government has sanctioned these illegal and unlicensed settlements by providing them with roads, security and other services.

While all Israeli settlement activity is in violation of international law, these “wildcat” efforts and the rather extraordinary expansion schemes currently underway are especially troubling to the U.S. Administration. These new settlements (overall there are 30 such efforts underway) are either in the heart of the West Bank or are extensions of the ever growing and thickening Israeli settlement belt that surrounds the city of Jerusalem. Furthermore, this expanded Israeli building and the confiscation of Palestinian land that accompanies it, occurring immediately on the heels of Israel having signed an agreement with the Palestinians, sends the message that Israel has no intention of leaving the West Bank and will not allow the Palestinians to have a contiguous land mass on which to establish their state.

This is exactly the message that Netanyahu wants to send to those hard-line supporters who brought him to power in 1996, but whose support he fears losing this year.

Speaking last week at the future site of an industrial park for settlers in the West Bank, Netanyahu pledged not to abandon the 30 new settlements. He said, “We have done a lot, and we will do a lot more.” Then he asked his listeners this rhetorical question, “Do we shrink, or do we preserve and expand?”

Equally important to Netanyahu’s victory is the support of recent Russian immigrants. It is estimated that there will be 680,000 Russians eligible to vote this year–17 percent of all voters. In 1996, the first election in which this group participated (their large-scale influx into Israel only began in 1989), they voted overwhelmingly for Netanyahu. The Russians, who also have their own political party, Israel B’Aliyah, were a part of the Likud coalition that governed since 1996.

Today, there are signs of strain between Netanyahu and this all-important group. The leadership of Israel B’Aliyah, has, without endorsing the Labor Party candidate Ehud Barak, appeared at events with him–providing Labor access to this constituency.

The Russians are a difficult group to reach, for an important reason–they do not speak Hebrew. Their numbers are so large and their settlement patterns in Israel are so compact, that they appear to have no need to assimilate. They do not read the Hebrew press or watch Hebrew television. For example, a recent poll showed that a substantial number of Russian immigrants had no idea who all the candidates were who were running in the election.

The only way to reach this group is either through their leaders or by appearing on Russian television–which Israeli Russians watch via satellite from Russia.

And so in a campaign effort to reach out to Russian voters, Netanyahu and his Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon made, between themselves, three separate trips to Russia in recent months. Since most Israeli Russians emigrated during and after the breakup of the Soviet Union, they not only do not harbor ill will toward their mother country, they have strong attachments to it. Therefore positive overtures made by an Israeli leader toward the Russian government and vice versa are viewed favorable by this constituency.

What has complicated Netanyahu’s campaign ploy was that his government’s visits to cozy up to Russia’s leaders and send a message back to Russian voters in Israel came during a period when two international events conflict with this effort. On the one hand, NATO has attacked a Russian ally, Serbia, and on the other hand, the United States is in the midst of considering whether or not to enforce sanctions against Russia for allegedly selling military technology to Iran (as is required by legislation that passed Congress with strong pressure from the Israel lobby, against the wishes of the Clinton Administration).

And so, being the crass and manipulative politician that he is the Netanyahu campaign’s visit to Russia served to undercut both his ally, the U.S. Administration, and his lobby in Washington.

According to Israeli press accounts, Netanyahu promised the Russian Prime Minister that he would work against sanctions. This, according to one account, was apparently enough to win Netanyahu the praise of his Russian counterpart. While lunching with Netanyahu in Moscow, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was reported to have said, “I don’t really want to interfere in Israeli politics, but if I were an Israeli citizen, I’d vote for Mr. Netanyahu in these coming elections”.

Sure enough, immediately upon returning to Israel, Netanyahu urged the IMF to approve a $4.8 billion loan to Russia. He also reportedly told the pro-Israel lobby to ease off Russia–causing some confusion, since it was a combined Israel-Israeli lobby campaign that saddled the United States with its bizarre sanction’s policy in the first place.

The way that Netanyahu’s government handled the NATO war on Serbia, so as to avoid alienating the Russians, has been even more irritating to the United States. In this effort, Foreign Minister Sharon has been serving as the pointman for his government. While the Prime Minister has offered luke warm support for the NATO offensive, Sharon has been outspoken and highly critical. His comments have been so breathtakingly undiplomatic they deserve to be quoted: “It’s wrong for Israel to provide legitimacy to this forceful sort of intervention which the NATO countries are deploying, led by the United States, in an attempt to impose a solution on regional disputes. The moment Israel expresses support for the sort of model of action we’re seeing in Kosovo, it’s likely to be the next victim…. Imagine that one day Arabs in the Galilee demand that the region in which they live be recognized as an autonomous area, connected to the Palestinian Authority…Brutal interventionism must not be legitimized as a way to try to impose a solution in regional conflicts.” (This, of course, a shocking observation from the man who engineered the brutal Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982!) Sharon continued, “Far from easing the conflict, the American bombardments have caused suffering and sent tens of thousands of refugees fleeing.”

Sharon also made comments warning that should Kosovo win independence it might become part of “a greater Albania that will turn into a center of Islamic terrorism in Europe…. If a big block of Muslim countries develops in this area, this could be the center of Islamic terrorism and the seed for this already exists there. This might lead to instability.” It was reported in the Russian press that Sharon’s comments were well received by that government.

Sharon has now become a frequent flyer to Russia, three visits in five months. Of course, each visit is explained as a policy meeting to deal with some pressing matter–but the real purpose appears to be the television coverage each visit brings home to Israel and to Israel’s Russian voters.

Sharon made the intentions of his government perfectly clear last week in an interview with the New York Time’s William Safire when he noted, “The key to next month’s election is the Russian Israelis. Two-thirds of the Russian Israelis are for Bibi now. If I can get that up over 70 percent, that’s it.”


U.S. Responds

The Clinton Administration used a visit by Sharon to Washington and a visit by Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk to Israel to make public its criticism of these Israeli ploys.

Obviously stung both by Israel’s refusal to honor the Wye Memorandum–in which the Administration has been so heavily invested–and Sharon’s support for Russian objections to the Serbian campaign, the Clinton Administration came quite close to doing what in 1992 it said it never would do: publicly criticize Israel. For years the Administration has adhered to this policy, at one point elevating to a “principle that underlines the U.S.-Israel relationship” (according to Martin Indyk during his conformation hearing to become U.S. Ambassador to Israel).

In recent months the United States has been increasingly critical of Israeli settlement building not only referring to them as “obstacles to peace”–a phrase this Administration has assiduously avoided, using instead the less harsh expression, “a complicating factor”. A few weeks ago, a State Department Spokesperson went even further calling settlements a “dangerous obstacle to peace”.

When Sharon met with Albright last week, the post meeting briefing described a less than friendly reception. The State Department spokesperson focused on the U.S. criticism of Israeli settlement activity noting that the United States was “particularly concerned” because such activity “makes it very difficult to pursue peace”. He noted:

    We also made clear that we’re opposed to unilateral acts by Israel, including and especially settlement activity. Specifically, we’re concerned about an accelerated pattern of Israeli actions on the ground since Wye which have become clearer in recent months.

Observing that Israel was building new settlements, expanding existing ones far beyond their borders “in many cases expanding to distant hilltops”.

In an effort to further accent their complaint with Israel on this matter, the U.S. apparently made evidence it had derived from satellite observations available to the Israeli press.

On the NATO-Russian matter, the Israeli press headlined the story “Indyk attacks Sharon in meeting with Netanyahu, U.S. diplomat: Foreign policy is about elections”

The story went on to describe Martin Indyk as “highly critical” of Sharon’s new Russia policy and “indicated that he did not believe Sharon was acting on his own with this new policy”. Another press account referred to Secretary Albright as “furious” with Sharon’s comments.

And so, in the end, both cynical and manipulative Likud efforts to win increased support for the May 17 elections ran afoul of the United States. These developments raise two interesting questions. If in order to win over public opinion and win an election a Likud government must turn against the United States and violate agreements the United States and Israel have signed together, what does that say about the so-called “special relationship”? And on what foundation is that “special relationship” based?

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