Why Clinton caved in to Israel

In one sign of the cost of to the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton has caved into the Israeli government and abandoned the peace process in the Middle East

Published July 28, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

If you want to watch the chickens of the Monica Lewinsky and campaign finance scandals coming home to roost, keep an eye on the Middle East.

In May, it should be recalled, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tried to revive the gasping Middle East peace process by delivering a clear and unambiguous ultimatum to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

Either accept a U.S. proposal for a modest Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank or the Clinton administration would "re-examine our approach to the peace process" and go public with its disagreements with Netanyahu's ultra-right-wing government. Albright and her aides made a point of reiterating that the American proposal, which calls on Israel to surrender 13 percent of the territory in return for concrete Palestinian steps to bolster Israel's security, would not be "watered down."

The peace process stalled because Netanyahu was offering only a 9 percent withdrawal. Albright's threat to go public meant that for the first time Netanyahu would have been forced to explain to Israeli voters -- two-thirds of whom support continued negotiations -- why the other 4 percent of territory was worth killing the peace process and straining relations with the country's chief ally. It would have meant exposing the damaging role played by his obstinate coalition partners, most of whom refuse to relinquish one more inch of West Bank territory to the Palestinians.

The administration's tactic struck a nerve, sending Netanyahu, his American Jewish supporters and their amen corner in Congress into a froth. On Netanyahu's instructions, the powerful pro-Israeli lobby complained to members of Congress about the administration's tone, with the lobby's well-known ability to influence Jewish campaign donations for the midterm elections an unspoken but unmistakable threat. As a result, 81 senators signed a lobby-dictated letter to Clinton, warning him not to go public with his differences with Netanyahu.

Though Albright, at least publicly, stuck by her refusal to dilute the American proposal, Netanyahu's tactic of facing down the administration through Congress was working. The first sign was an extension of the two-week deadline that Albright set for an Israeli response. Then the deadline was extended again as the Israelis played for more time.

Then, in a hopeful sign last week, senior Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Tel Aviv for the first time in 16 months. The Israelis agreed to a further 1 percent withdrawal in addition to their original offer of 9 percent, but demanded that the remaining 3 percent of territory under the American proposal be turned into a "national park," upon which the Palestinians would be forbidden to build. The Palestinians refused, and the talks ended in deadlock, with both sides urging the Clinton administration to step in to help.

Then came the shocker. The Clinton administration, mediators of the Middle East peace process since the Oslo Accords of 1993, refused to mediate. "They should stay engaged, and they should continue to work," said White House spokesman Michael McCurry. "There's no progress to report, true. But that doesn't mean that they can't make progress. And they ought to try harder."

The Clinton administration's refusal to intervene masked a much more craven cave-in. According to American, Middle Eastern and European sources, Albright's ultimatum to publicize its differences with Netanyahu has been dropped altogether, on order from the president himself. Undermined by her boss, the gutsy and sharp-tongued secretary of state now appears to be what Texans would call "all hat and no cattle."

Why the cave-in? First of all, the Lewinsky scandal has so weakened Clinton that he is perceived by Israeli leaders as wearing an empty holster. Prominent Israeli parliamentarians from Netanyahu's ruling Likud Party openly deride Clinton as "up to his neck in scandal." Therefore, the reaction in Jerusalem to his "accept or else" bluster goes something like: "Or else what? We have 81 senators on our side. How many troops do you have, besides your loud-mouthed secretary of state? Moreover, at this -- ahem -- delicate time in your presidency, do you really want to get into a fight with Israel over our security needs? No? We didn't think so."

If the Lewinsky scandal has tied one of Clinton's hands behind his back in the Middle East, his Democratic campaign finance concerns have tied the other. As Democrats prepare to recapture the House this fall, and as Vice President Al Gore gears up for his presidential run in 2000, the party depends heavily on a small number of wealthy Jewish donors. No one likes to admit that fact, but the nation may learn more about this dependence if Attorney General Janet Reno recommends an independent counsel to investigate campaign finance abuses during the 1996 election.

Their donations underscore the corrosive effect of money on politics. Despite recent polls that show 80 percent of American Jews favor more administration "pressure" on Netanyahu to move the peace process forward, the small inner circle of Democratic Jewish donors do not. Their message to Clinton is simple: Take your hands off Israel, or take your hands out of my pocket. Clinton, knowing where his bread is buttered, has withdrawn the ultimatum that led so many to believe that he meant business in the Middle East.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the right-wing policies of Israel and its U.S. lobby were met by firm American resolve. In 1991, President George Bush refused to give Israel $10 billion in loan guarantees until Jerusalem pledged not to use the money to settle Russian immigrants in the occupied territories.

Outraged, Jewish lobbyists swarmed over Capitol Hill, three quarters of the Senate signed a letter warning Bush to stand down and American Jews even branded the president an anti-Semite. But Bush refused to stand down, and in the end he prevailed. The tension in American-Israeli relations caused Israelis to think twice about their right-wing leaders, and in 1992, they elected Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister.

Clinton and his aides are fond of boasting how little the Lewinsky scandal has affected his job performance, how he's able to "compartmentalize" and filter out the background noise of the scandal to focus on the important policy issues at hand.

If ever there was a need to demonstrate that ability, it's now. If the Middle East peace process dies -- and make no mistake about it: It is very close to death -- renewed fighting between Israelis and Palestinians is as certain as the sunrise. This is not a good time to let things slip. Jordan's King Hussein, 62 years old and perhaps the most moderating figure in the Arab world, is ill. Despite Jordan's peace treaty with Israel, Hussein's successor may not have the stature to prevent the country's majority Palestinian population from joining the fight. The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty could snap as well, causing two decades of American peacemaking in the Middle East to unravel in an instant. And to punctuate that threat, Iran recently tested a medium-range missile capable of hitting Israel. For the United States, the consequences of such a war would be incalculable.

"Lame duck" is a term that doesn't even begin to capture the result of Clinton's Monica and money scandals. "The Cowardly Lion" would be more like it, accent on the lyin'.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Bill Clinton George W. Bush Iran Middle East White House