Newsreal: Fish or cut bait

If he wants to save his proudest foreign policy accomplishment, President Clinton will have to face down Israel.

By Jonathan Broder
Published April 1, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

WASHINGTON -- With the abject failure of America's top Middle East envoy to revive the dying Arab-Israeli peace process, President Clinton now faces one of the toughest political and foreign policy choices of his presidency: Lean much more heavily, and openly, on Israel's hard-line government, which has stalled any progress on peace, or disengage from Middle East mediation altogether.

Either option is fraught with danger. If he openly pressures Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right-wing American Jews will howl in protest, and so too may other American Jews who voted for Clinton in both elections. But if he just walks away from the peace process altogether, there could be a resumption of Palestinian-Israeli violence that could destabilize the entire Middle East.

President Clinton was aware of the quandary before Middle East envoy Dennis Ross took his trip last week. "It's a very tricky situation," he said in an informal White House conversation with Salon editors recently. "If I move in one direction, the Israelis get mad, and if I move in another, the Palestinians get mad. We're looking at it very closely. I haven't decided yet."

A State Department official expressed it more pointedly on Tuesday. "We've been at this for a year now," the official said. "Our credibility is on the line. It's time to fish or cut bait."

Ross' latest round of shuttle diplomacy was seen by many in the administration as a last-ditch attempt, using quiet diplomacy, to convince Netanyahu to accept a U.S. proposal to withdraw from 13 percent of the West Bank. The administration hoped such a concession on Netanyahu's part would revive the peace talks, which have remained stalled since last March despite meetings and discussions between Clinton and Netanyahu. But with Netanyahu's rejection of the American plan, there is considerable support in U.S. policy circles for cutting bait.

"There are many options, and one option has always been to disengage," said State Department spokesman James Rubin, who is a close advisor to his boss, Madeleine Albright. "If the two sides aren't prepared to make the hard calls, the catalyst can only do so much."

It would not be the first time the U.S. has administered a cold slap to its closest Middle East ally. During the Bush administration, Secretary of State James Baker publicly lost patience with Israel's obstinacy during U.S. efforts to convene the Madrid peace talks in 1991. During a congressional hearing, Baker openly gave out the White House telephone number and suggested that Israeli leaders "call us when you're ready" to discuss peace.

The ploy worked. Shaken by the prospect of facing the Palestinians without the support of Israel's American protector, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was forced to attend the Madrid talks. A year later, concerned that Shamir was mishandling the overall U.S.-Israel relationship, Israelis voted him out of office.

Some senior officials are arguing that a similar disengagement by the Clinton administration would be equally earthshaking. Unlike Baker and Bush, who were regarded as unsympathetic to Israel, Clinton is viewed by American Jewish leaders as the most pro-Israeli president in Israel's history. If he decides he's had enough, the thinking goes, Israelis and their American supporters can only conclude that the blame lies with Netanyahu.

However, Netanyahu appears to be courting an American disengagement. As long as the United States continues to mediate, sources close to the Israeli leader say, Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat has an American buffer between himself and Netanyahu. Stripped of that buffer, their thinking goes, Arafat would have little choice but to accede to Netanyahu's rigid stand on Jerusalem and his refusal to withdraw from no more than 9 percent of the West Bank.

But such a path will lead to almost certain violence. An American disengagement would leave Arafat diplomatically defenseless, creating a political vacuum that the forces of Arab radicalism in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will be only too happy to fill. With the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement's appeal growing every day the peace process remains stalled, any further concessions by Arafat to Netanyahu would be political suicide. Indeed, in the absence of American mediation, there is a strong likelihood that Arafat will feel compelled to get behind any Palestinian protests that challenge Netanyahu's policies.

Such unrest could easily escalate into widespread armed clashes similar to those in September 1996 that left nearly 80 Palestinians and Israelis dead. Absent American involvement, Israeli moves to seize more Palestinian lands or crush resistance would place great strains on Israel's pre-existing peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. Another Middle East war is not out of the question.

That is why others in the administration are arguing for greater American pressure on Netanyahu. Never before, they say, have conditions for such pressure been more fortuitous. In response to those who fear a domestic political backlash by American Jews, they point to a December poll by the Israel Policy Forum, a New York think tank, showing that 84 percent of American Jews favor U.S. "pressure" on both Israel and the Palestinians. At a meeting with Clinton soon after the poll was released, American Jewish leaders endorsed its results and unanimously supported the president's efforts to push the peace process forward.

"Any other time, they would have walked into the White House, prepared to explain why such a poll was wrong or misleading," says J.J. Goldberg, author of "Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment." "Instead, they walked in, and everybody's message was, 'Do what you must do, Mr. President. We love you.' Period."

Pressuring Netanyahu would involve President Clinton going public with a plan for a rapid Israeli withdrawal from 13 percent of the West Bank, broken into three stages, as called for under the Oslo Accords. Under the Clinton plan, these pullbacks are to be implemented parallel with specific Palestinian commitments to bolster Israeli security. After the withdrawals are completed, final status talks can begin on the most difficult issues -- refugees, final borders, Jewish settlements and the future status of Jerusalem.

Clinton has broached these proposals quietly in order to give the Israeli leader room to maneuver within his hard-line cabinet. But with no evidence of such maneuvering, some of Clinton's advisors say the time has come to publicly ratchet up the pressure on Netanyahu and see how the Israeli leader responds in the glare of public criticism.

There will be influential American Jews who will protest. And the president's own pollsters say that more recent opinion surveys suggest the Jewish community's stomach for American pressure on Israel may be weakening, with only about 50 percent still favoring tougher American treatment. That leaves the other half of American Jews still on board. The question is, are they enough to embolden this politically cautious president to take such a strong, public initiative?

Until now, Clinton and his top aides have spoken about the need for the Israelis and Palestinians "to make the hard calls." Now, the administration faces the collapse of one its proudest foreign policy achievements. It's time for Clinton to make a hard call himself.

Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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