WASHINGTON -- Over the next two weeks, President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- two men who in private don't particularly like each other -- will undergo a very public battle of wills.
The battle will be intensely political, drawing in Congress, the so-called Jewish lobby and the American people, as well as pollsters, pundits and pedants. Given the stakes involved, the clash will almost certainly turn ugly. But when the smoke clears, the future of U.S. peacemaking efforts in the Middle East will be determined, and perhaps the whole tenor of U.S.-Israeli relations.
At issue are U.S. efforts to avert a complete collapse of the Middle East peace process. A summit between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yassir Arafat was supposed to have convened in Washington on Monday, but that got canceled after Netanyahu refused to accede to U.S. demands that Israel withdraw from an additional 13 percent of the occupied West Bank. Netanyahu's agreement would have paved the way for the Israelis and the Palestinians to tackle the "permanent status" issues, like borders, refugees, Jewish settlements and the future of Jerusalem.
Netanyahu, whose government has already partially withdrawn from 27 percent of West Bank territory, has insisted he would go no further than an additional 9 percent withdrawal. President Clinton and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had figured the carrot of permanent status talks -- something Netanyahu has wanted for some time now -- would be enough to get him to agree to the 13 percent withdrawal.
They figured wrong. Netanyahu dismissed the American proposal saying he would not bow to American "dictates." Special Middle East envoy Dennis Ross spent the weekend trying to convince Netanyahu to bend, but to no avail.
Now the Clinton administration is reportedly giving Netanyahu two more weeks to make up his mind, beginning with an arm-twisting session with Albright in Washington on Wednesday.
Israel's state-controlled radio is quoting government officials as saying that Netanyahu will arrive with a new counterproposal under which Israel would pull back from 9 percent of the West Bank over three months and place an additional 4 percent of the territory "in escrow," allowing the United States to determine when it would be handed over to the Palestinians. The timing of the transfer would be based on Palestinian compliance with a long list of Israeli demands, including a crackdown on Islamic militants, an end to hostile propaganda against Israel and revisions to the Palestinian covenant that eliminate the call for destruction of the Jewish state, the radio said.
The Clinton administration isn't commenting on any new ideas until it hears directly from Netanyahu. Arafat has rejected the reported Israeli proposal. "There can be no compromise on a ... compromise," he told a news conference in Brussels. "We would like to see the Israelis accept the U.S. initiative."
Meanwhile, Netanyahu is hanging tough. "At the end of the day, in matters of security, it is Israel that must decide, and I think this is the view shared by, frankly, the people of America and I would like to believe also the government of the United States," Netanyahu told a Jerusalem audience Monday.
That theme -- that only Israel, and not Clinton, can decide what is best for its security -- is bound to be repeated when Netanyahu meets congressional leaders later this week. He is also expected to pound that message home in numerous speeches, interviews and television appearances that he has scheduled.
Netanyahu's strategy to blunt the administration's pressure was evident in a New York Times op-ed column Monday by William Safire, one of the Israeli leader's champions and occasional balloon carrier in the American media. Safire blasted Hillary Rodham Clinton for speaking approvingly last week about the eventual creation of a Palestinian state -- a comment that the administration disavowed as her own personal view but that many in the Middle East, both Arabs and Israelis, interpreted as a reflection of President Clinton's private feelings. Then Safire proposed replacing Middle East envoy Ross, whom Netanyahu is said to distrust, with former Secretary of State George Shultz. "Dennis is tired and Madeleine needs help," Safire wrote. "But the mediation game can still be won if [Clinton] gets some talent off the bench."
Administration officials say they have no plans to replace Ross. But they do appear to have plans to turn up the heat on Netanyahu, should he continue to balk at the withdrawal-permanent status talks package. Jamie Rubin, Albright's spokesman and advisor, told Salon that Albright would keep up pressure on Netanyahu by speaking about the importance of the peace process every chance she gets. She is scheduled to deliver a speech Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington, and Middle East peace will be a "major theme," Rubin said.
According to administration officials, President Clinton has given Albright a green light to speak publicly about the American proposals if Netanyahu doesn't bend. This would be a significant move because until now the administration has only detailed its proposals in background briefings with reporters. By going public, the administration feels, the gap between the United States and Israel will become clear and unavoidable, especially to an Israeli public that, according to the opinion polls, appears to be more willing to make peace with the Palestinians than does the right-wing Netanyahu coalition government.
Ironically, Netanyahu is counting on American support to head off the pressure. Some 81 senators already have sent a letter to Clinton demanding he refrain from publicizing the plan. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other Republicans have lately criticized Clinton for leaning too hard on the Israeli government. In addition to his meetings with lawmakers, Netanyahu will try to rally the influential American Jewish community at a series of speeches. Next Sunday, he is scheduled to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby.
On Clinton's side, administration officials say, is the firm conviction that the U.S. package is an excellent deal for Israel. The proposed 13 percent withdrawal, combined with the 27 percent of the West Bank that the Palestinians already partially control, means that the Palestinians will go into permanent status talks holding a total of 40 percent of West Bank territory -- 10 percent less than the previous Labor government was willing to relinquish.
Moreover, Netanyahu had always wanted to go into permanent status talks without having relinquished any territory on which Jewish settlements were built. According to several Israeli former generals and strategic experts, the proposed 13 percent does not require Netanyahu to relinquish or endanger any settlements. Administration officials note that Netanyahu's own military general staff agrees with this assessment.
Stiffening Clinton's resolve is the fear not only that failure to get the peace process back on track will undermine one of his proudest foreign policy achievements, it will also inflict serious damage on U.S. relations with moderate Arab regimes like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Unless Clinton is willing to stand up to Netanyahu, officials say, he cannot count on the strategic support of these countries in confronting Iraq and Iran. Vice President Al Gore, who is probably going to run for the Democratic nomination in 2000 and who will need Jewish money and support, is said by sources close to him to agree wholeheartedly with Clinton.
The White House's convictions are also backed up by domestic political numbers. A recent poll by the Israel Policy Forum, a New York think tank that supports the peace process, showed that 80 percent of American Jews back Clinton's efforts to get the peace talks back on track. In addition, the Jewish community's organized leadership appears to be increasingly divided over Netanyahu's policy. In a letter to the New York Times Monday, Theodore Mann, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, dismissed Netanyahu's claims that the American proposals constituted a security risk. Mann warned that any further delays in the peace process would endanger Israel itself.
"Albright deserves the appreciation of all those who care deeply about the security of Israel," he wrote. "She understands, as did Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, that the alternative to the fulfillment of the Oslo [peace] accords will be war. When that war is over and the dead have been buried, all of the problems besetting the Middle East will still be there. There is no alternative to peace, and there are no benefits from protracting the process, only unacceptable risks."