Posted on June 29, 1992 in Washington Watch

George Bush took a big risk this election year in an effort to protect the Middle East peace process. From the results of the Israeli elections, it appears that his gamble may have paid off.

Those elections were a victory not only for the Labor Party and Yitzhak Rabin, but also for the Bush Administration’s policy on Middle East peace.

President Bush has taken a lot of flack from Israel’s hard-core constituency in this country, notably the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and certain members of Congress; but the truth is that it was the President’s policy which forced an historic and needed debate in Israel on the issues of building settlements in the Occupied territories and trading land to the Palestinians and Syrians in return for a final peace agreement.

The Likud government in Israel, under the leadership of Yitzhak Shamir, had repeatedly made it clear that it had no interest in the “land for peace” formula outlined in UN resolutions and supported almost unanimously by the international community.

Shamir assumed a posture some described as arrogant—he took support in the United States for granted. He intensified provocative actions in the territories and resisted efforts by the Bush Administration to convene peace talks and establish an atmosphere of good will.

The real test came on the issue of housing loan guarantees to help resettle Soviet Jewish immigrants in Israel. Shamir calculated that, if he could win the guarantees without sacrificing anything on the ground, he would solidify his political support in Israel without surrendering his dream of a “Greater Israel.” Indeed, one Administration official said Shamir wanted to appear at the opening Madrid peace talks this past fall with the Arabs around the table, the loan guarantees in his hand and the explicit permission of the U.S. Congress to continue his expansionist policies in the Occupied Territories. Shamir was confident that his friends in Washington—Congress and AIPAC—would be able to put enough political pressure on the Administration to secure the loan guarantees without conditions.

The Likud government and its supporters sought to cast the issue of Soviet immigration as a strictly humanitarian issue, but the President understood that allowing Israel to settle Soviet Jews on Arab land would seriously endanger the peace process he was trying to foster.

Bush, who had only recently fought a war against Iraq, put his foot down. He shocked the pro-Israel community by standing up to an intense lobbying effort and refusing to endorse unconditional loan guarantees. Bush rightly believed that more than politics was at stake—the peace process and the principles upon which peace must be built were also hanging in the balance. The President quickly won strong public opinion support for his stance. At one point over 80% of the U.S. public agreed with his policy of denying unconditional loan guarantees to Israel.

Bush worked hard to create a climate of trust and opportunity in which both the Arabs and Israel would benefit from a real peace. He held out the promise of resolving tough regional issues like arms and water, increased economic development and financial incentives—all in an effort to induce both sides to sit down and negotiate an agreement based on the principle of “land for peace.”

The President’s and Secretary Baker’s tough but creative diplomacy—unprecedented in the history of this country’s relations with Israel—forced the American pro-Israel community and the Israeli electorate to deal with a question they had been reluctant to face since 1967 when the occupation began: territorial expansion or regional peace?

It is in this context that Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin, who is no dove, committed himself to a one-year freeze on settlements in the Occupied Territories and a plan to implement interim Palestinian autonomy within six months. He knew that he had to do this in order to protect U.S.- Israeli relations from further strains and to ultimately secure the loan guarantees. If Rabin stands by those promises, the peace talks will be reenergized and real and substantive peace negotiations can begin that could eventually lead to an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

One of the ironies surrounding the way that the Middle East peace process is the impact it has had on the U.S. and Israeli elections, and how the Democratic Party in the U.S. taking its cues from AIPAC, is missing an opportunity to prove it can put special-interest politics aside and do the right thing to support peace in the Middle East.

Bill Clinton’s Middle East policy as outlined in the Democratic Party’s platform is neither good policy nor good politics. It is pandering to the pro-Israel community, plain and simple. More importantly, it even poses a threat to the ongoing and fragile Middle East peace process.

Instead of offering genuine support for the peace process, the Democrat’s platform criticizes the Bush Administration for being one-sided (presumably against Israel). The Arab countries, even those with whom the U.S. has a special relationship, are ignored: the draft platform refers to them only as “her [Israel’s] Arab neighbors.” And for the first time in eight years, the platform includes a provocative section calling “unified” Jerusalem the capital of Israel, in effect predetermining the outcome of the most sensitive issue to be negotiated in the peace talks.

The Clinton platform sends the wrong message to Israel, to the Arabs, and to the American people. By failing to distance himself from the hard-line pro-Israel lobby, the Democratic nominee has aligned himself with Israel’s right wing and ignored an increasing number of people in this country and in Israel who want a fair and lasting peace in the region.

The Clinton platform gives sustenance to those who want to stifle the healthy debate now taking place in Israel over settlement policy and the future of the Occupied Territories. By repeatedly pledging to grant loan guarantees without conditions, Clinton may offer the dangerous hope that with a Bush defeat in November, settlements and de facto annexation of the West Bank and Gaza [and East Jerusalem] can continue without resistance.

This is music to the ears of the right wing in Israel, which, regardless of the final shape of Israel’s new coalition government, will demand the continued building of settlements. This would, of course, only result in the continued dispossession of Palestinians, increased violence in the Occupied Territories, and making the chances for real peace even more remote.

Moreover, by completely ignoring our relationship with Arab countries, the Democrats of 1992 promise a return to the disastrous Reagan Middle East policies of the 1980s. The platform ignores the profound changes that have enabled the United States to build an important regional coalition. The U.S. has invested heavily (politically and economically) in regional security and stability in the Middle East, but none of this is even reflected in the Democratic platform.

The majority of party leaders, elected officials and strategists with whom I have spoken have all but shrugged off my concerns with a “We know it’s horrible, but you know why we must do this.”

Democrats are doing this because of an excessive political power play by AIPAC and other strong supporters of Israel who have seized control of the Clinton campaign in an effort to secure their position.

They have worked fervidly since 1988 to avoid a repeat of the debate on Palestinian rights which took place in full public view at the 1988 Democratic Convention.

As a result of their efforts, they have taken over the platform committee of several state Democratic parties, the national platform committee and the foreign policy section of the Clinton campaign. And they are playing hard ball—locking out individuals and groups who hold divergent opinions and harassing and intimidating those who disagree with them.

The reason these pro-Israel activists behave in such an obsessive and even paranoid manner is because they are aware that their control is limited, and that without their heavy-handed pressure they would lose the debate. Wherever an open discussion takes place in the country or within the Democratic Party, Israel’s policies lose. And before they took control of parts of Clinton’s campaign, the democratic nominee was quite balanced in his views on the Middle East.

Early in the campaign Clinton spoke of “land for peace” and of settlements as “an obstacle to peace.” It was not until the New York primary that Clinton shifted to his current pro-Likud, Bush-bashing view of Middle east policy.

The truth is that AIPAC’s view is not popular with most Democrats, and their heavy-handed tactics are even less popular. While they have successfully intimidated elected officials and candidates, they have much less support in the grass roots base of the party.

Nonetheless, even though this view is unpopular within and even destructive to the party, AIPAC and it’s allies will continue to force the candidate and the party to challenge Bush and criticize and policy that stops short of 100% support for the hard-line policies of Yitzhak Shamir and the Likud Party—the policies repudiated just this week by the Israeli electorate.

What is important to note is that, as a result of this Democratic challenge to Bush’s policy, the Middle East has become a U.S. election issue just as the peace process and the U.S. relationship with Israel was an issue in the Israeli election.

While most Americans are not concerned with most foreign policy issues, a number of recent polls show strong support for a balanced and fair approach to the region as well as for the President’s Middle East policy. More than 50% polled support the formula of land for peace, while only 27% oppose it; 53% of those polled support the creation of an independent Palestinian state and only 21% opposed it. There is very little support for aid to Israel, and according to a poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal, 42% of Americans feel that Israel is the greatest obstacle to peace and 32% feel the same way about the Arabs. By a margin of almost four-to-one Americans favor either making the loan guarantees conditional on stopping settlements in the Occupied Territories—or not granting them at all.

If Clinton persist in his challenge to the President’s Middle East policy—it is a challenge he will lose. And if the President remains firm in his commitment to produce an interim autonomy agreement by October of this year, then his risky election year decision to challenge Shamir and the pro-Israel lobby could become a useful and popular asset to his reelection campaign.

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