Newsreal: The end

Benjamin Netanyahu's meeting with President Clinton next Tuesday will likely sink the Middle East peace process altogether.

Published January 16, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington next week, the U.S.-Israeli relationship is hurtling toward its nastiest confrontation since an agitated George Bush stood before White House microphones in 1991 and told Americans that his Middle East peace policies were under attack by the "powerful forces" of the pro-Israel Jewish lobby.

Back then, Bush's nemesis was flinty Israeli leader Yitzhak Shamir, and the issue was Washington's refusal to provide $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel until Shamir froze Jewish settlement building in the occupied territories. Bush's comment enraged many American Jews, who accused him of anti-Semitism and voted for Democrat Bill Clinton in the 1992 election.

Now the players are President Clinton, probably the friendliest American president toward Israel in its 50-year history, and Netanyahu, considered by many to be Israel's most amateurish leader ever. And the odds are, after the two leaders have met on Tuesday, that the peace process will have sunk beneath the waves.

The final gush of cold water will be delivered by Netanyahu in the form of a proposal transparent in its duplicity and breathtaking in its mockery of the underlying principles of a peace process the U.S. was supposed to guarantee. Rather than the "credible and significant" blueprint for withdrawal from the West Bank that Israel was supposed to come up with -- somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 to 15 percent -- Netanyahu, according to sources, is preparing to propose less than 10 percent. Moreover, the proposal is to be accompanied by 11 pages of fine print -- some 50 specific conditions that Israel says the Palestinians must satisfy completely before any further withdrawal or any further negotiations on the final status of the territories can take place.

Some of the demands, like the curtailment of Palestinian political activities in Jerusalem, are bound to be rejected by Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat, who is scheduled to meet with Clinton on Thursday. According to Israeli commentators, quoting members of Netanyahu's own coalition government, that is exactly what Netanyahu is hoping and expecting.

"The government does not intend to make any progress along the road to a final status agreement with the Palestinians, but is instead intent on sabotaging the peace process and avoiding any redeployment whatsoever," says an editorial in the respected Israeli Haaretz newspaper. "This latest move is designed to anger the Palestinians and cause them to despair of getting anything in the final status negotiating process, so that they can be directly blamed for the breakdown in the peace talks."

Netanyahu denies that is his intention. "There are no ultimatums here," he told reporters in Israel. "We are fulfilling all our commitments and we expect the Palestinians to fulfill their obligations, and we say that if they are indeed fulfilled, we will move forward with the redeployment."

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According to administration officials, President Clinton is keenly aware of Netanyahu's game and is in no mood to humor him. Their meeting has been scheduled for one hour on Tuesday morning. There will be no joint news conference afterward, no lunch, none of the diplomatic niceties that normally accompany an Israeli leader's visit. At some point after their talks, officials say, Clinton will publicly comment on Netanyahu's proposals, and there is every indication he will be sharply critical.

The only question is whether the president will then unveil some new plan to revive the peace process or abandon it altogether -- with a message to Israeli leaders similar to the one the Bush administration sent to the Shamir government: You have the White House telephone number, call when you're serious. If Clinton has any sense, he will do
the latter. A U.S. plan will simply be picked apart by both Israelis and
Palestinians. The phone number strategy brought down the Shamir government.
It could do the same to Netanyahu.

And a crucial difference this time is that Israel no longer has those "powerful forces" it can automatically count on -- the Jewish lobby and a sympathetic U.S. Congress.
According to an internal Israeli Foreign Ministry report on congressional attitudes toward Israel, a growing number of lawmakers -- Democrats and Republicans -- have become deeply suspicious of Netanyahu and his intentions toward the peace process. This assessment was driven home last week when a U.S. congressional delegation met with Netanyahu's aides in Jerusalem. According to those who participated in the meeting, the delegation, which included traditionally pro-Israel Reps. David Skaggs, D-Colo., Bill Barrett, R-Neb., and Ray LaHood, R-Ill., asked tough questions about Israel's policy on troop withdrawals. In the end, LaHood expressed the view that Netanyahu was not interested in moving the peace process forward and warned that unless Netanyahu arrives in Washington with proposals for "substantial steps," Israel would no longer be able to count on his support. And LaHood warned he was not alone in Congress in this view.

Moreover, the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee, (AIPAC), the once all-powerful pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, has not been able to stop this erosion of support. In Jerusalem, senior AIPAC lobbyists advised several members of the Israeli Knesset that anyone who thinks that Congress can be turned against the administration on the issue of peace simply does not comprehend Israel's poor image on Capitol Hill. The AIPAC officials added that Netanyahu's support for a proposed law banning the authority of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel has so enraged American Jews that the lobby can no longer count on their support on the peace issue.

One concrete test will be the number of Republicans who show up when Netanyahu goes courting on Capitol Hill next week. He is set to meet with House Speaker Newt Gingrich,
who has said he will make himself available despite the congressional break that doesn't end until Jan. 27. Despite urgent phone calls and invitations from the Israeli embassy, it is far from clear how many fellow Republicans will follow Gingrich's lead and how many will prefer to stay away.

To compensate for his flagging support among Israel's traditional American bases, Netanyahu will spend a significant chunk of his two and a half days here meeting with fundamentalist Christians. On Monday evening, before his meeting with Clinton, Netanyahu is scheduled to address a fundamentalist Christian group called Voices United For Israel. His first media interview will be held on a Christian television station owned by Cal Thomas, a right-wing newspaper columnist who was formerly Jerry Falwell's press secretary. He is also set for a television interview with Pat Robertson, whose written musings on the power of Jewish bankers is considered by some to be expressions of classic anti-Semitism.

When they are not angry or dismayed, administration officials are confused and saddened by the turn of Middle East events and most blame Netanyahu for it. The fervent wish at the State Department and the White House is for his government, currently hanging by a razor-thin majority, to collapse and be replaced by a more moderate leadership. But some officials are beginning to acknowledge that Netanyahu's government may not fall so easily, and that even if it does, the next government may be no less obstructionist.

In his office, President Clinton keeps the yarmulke he wore during the funeral of one his greatest heroes and friends, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist whose motive was to scuttle the peace process. The question is, what can Clinton do to make sure that his dear friend did not die in vain.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Bill Clinton Middle East Newt Gingrich