Posted on July 15, 1996 in Washington Watch

Netanyahu came to the U.S., but he did not conquer. He left Washington with very few changes in his wake: his supporters still support him; his opponents heard nothing to ease their concerns; and his skeptics remain quite skeptical.

While some Arab commentators were critical of the Israeli Prime Minister’s White House reception, the meeting was far from a love-fest. The U.S. press coverage is interesting in this regard. One headline commenting on the meeting read, “Face to Face, Yet Far Apart,” and another, “U.S. and Israeli Leaders define differences.” Some officials expressed their satisfaction at these headlines and both the State Department and the White House spokespersons went to great lengths during their daily briefing sessions to establish that the U.S. positions on all major issues in the peace process have not changed.

For its part, the Clinton Administration used the discussion with the Prime Minister to lay down several markers it views as integral to maintaining momentum in the peace process. The U.S. expects that agreements reached and commitments made be honored. It is also concerned that Israel avoid provocations in some flash point areas: Hebron, Jerusalem, settlements, and land confiscations.

The Administration also made clear its concern that the Israelis lose no time in implementing agreements and in beginning meaningful and substantial discussions with the Palestinian Authority. In public and private the Administration defended the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian President Yasir Arafat, whom they see as working to comply with the Oslo accords and as central to the peace process.

Also on the Palestinian track, the Administration made clear that it hopes to see movement on the economic front, noting industrial parks, check-points, and the bridges into Egypt and Jordan as areas where the Israelis can make immediate progress to ease the restrictions on Palestinian commerce.

The Clinton and Netanyahu press conference that followed their private meeting provided some interesting theater. Netanyahu, addressing his constituency in Israel, was uncompromising on every position. It was clear that while he may make some accommodations upon his return to Israel—but they will be on his time and in his way.

The President, according to most press reports, appeared to be both cordial and uncomfortable. While pledging continued support for Israel and keeping with his long standing political commitment to refrain from any public criticism of Israel, the President’s words and behavior established the fact that there were clear differences between the two leaders. At one point as Netanyahu discussed settlements, the President grimaced, bringing some laughter from the attending press.

The next day Netanyahu appeared triumphant before Congress. After an embarrassingly undiplomatic five minute ovation, Netanyahu remarked that he could not get an ovation like that from his own Knesset. Here, again, there were fascinating scenes to observe. While Congress stood in wild applause over the Prime Minister’s pledge never to see Jerusalem divided, the Secretary of State Warren Christopher sat in cold and clearly unappreciative silence.

The Congressional response was expected. Rabin, during his life, had criticized Likud’s efforts to organize Congress against the peace process. In 1994, Netanyahu sent what Rabin called “the gang of three”—Likud operatives to set up a lobbying effort to mobilize some elements of the Jewish community and especially the Republican leadership in Congress on several issues designed to weaken the peace process (i.e. Jerusalem, aid to the Palestinians, and the issue of U.S. troops in the Golan Heights).

In large measures the effects of the “gang of three” were successful and so, in a way, Netanyahu was coming to a “home town” audience that had been prepared for his arrival.

Some Republicans will make an effort to use their relationship with Likud, their support for the Likud agenda, and Netanyahu’s victory as issues in the 1996 campaign. Their goal will be to paint the Clinton Administration as too soft in its support for Israel, thereby hoping to deny the Democrats the super majority of the Jewish vote they won in the 1992 election.

This was reemphasized during Netanyahu’s New York City visit where he was greeted by the Republican Governors of New Jersey and New York (whose campaign advisor worked on Netanyahu’s campaign), the Republican Mayor of New York City, and the Republican Presidential nominee Bob Dole. After their brief meeting, Dole noted to the press that a Dole Administration would be better for Israel, citing his effort on Jerusalem, and the increased support he would give to Israel’s missile defense system and greater pressure he would bring to bear on Syria and Iran.

One of the new Prime Minister’s most interesting meetings occurred on Wednesday when he appeared before an audience of Arab diplomats, journalists, and community leaders. He began his remarks in a most accommodating of tone. But during the question and answer period it became clear that while the tone was softer, the message was vintage hard-line: no to land for peace, no to the division of Jerusalem, no to recognition of Palestinian nationalism, and a few other no’s along the way.

His two meetings in New York with Jewish leaders and the broader community were equally interesting. A poll released by the Israel Policy Forum this week showed that most American Jews (by a two to one margin) would have voted for Peres, but that with Netanyahu’s victory over sixty percent, view him favorably and want to give him a chance. At the same time, their support for the peace process is undiminished and they seem willing to give the new Prime Minister’s “go-it-slow” approach a chance.

The Prime Minister’s meetings with the Jewish community reflected those attitudes. Most were simply “star-struck,” an expected reaction. Some die-hard Likud supporters gloated over their victory, while Labor and Peace Now supporters stood by respectful, but somewhat skeptical and concerned.


A few concluding observations.

The next five months will be dangerous for peace and the people of the Middle East. In the midst of U.S. elections, particularly with Republicans attempting to create a wedge issue over support for Israel, the Administration will be cautious in charting its course through these new waters. It is clear that the U.S. has sharp policy differences with this new government and is pressing them to avoid provocation. But it is difficult to know what the U.S. reaction will be if provocations occur.

Meanwhile, despite any Arab counter-thrust, Likud is making a determined effort to redefine the U.S. policy debate on several Middle East issues.

Propaganda is what Netanyahu does best and he was in prime form during his visit to Washington. He has long been a master at creating slogans and repeating them often enough that they not only become convincing but agenda-setting ideas.

In the new Likud framework “peace and security” replaces “land for peace”. “Reciprocity” means Palestinians must act before Israel acts and Israel alone will determine when Palestinians have acted satisfactorily. “Negotiations with Syria with no pre-conditions” means that Israel will not leave the Golan, would prefer to see the Syrian regime changed and will insist that Syria remove terrorist groups from Damascus.

In reality those new slogans mean that Israel will not move forward with the peace process.

Finally, in an effort to redefine the U.S. agenda, Likud is once again relying on Congress to carry its load. This it will be recalled is what Shamir attempted to do after the Gulf War—only to be upended by then President Bush. Already there is anti-Syria legislation in the Congress attempting to punish and isolate that government.

It will be a dangerous five months.

The Prime Minister’s visit changed no one’s opinion and broke no new ground. The markers have been placed and the lines have been drawn. Now will come the real tests to see whether or not the peace process can survive in any viable state through November.

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