JERUSALEM (Nov. 26)
To say that Israel is being dragged kicking and screaming to the next round of bilateral talks with the Arabs in Washington would be an overstatement.
But enough rancor has been generated by the seemingly innocuous issue of venue to set observers wondering whether there is a truly significant basis for the high-profile public tension between Israel and its most powerful ally.
It may very well be that Israel and the United States suspect each other of having secret agendas.
In any case, the Israelis believe they are justified in feeling the Bush administration has compounded injury with insult by its seemingly high-handed treatment of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir during his visit to Washington last week.
Since the bilateral talks formally opened in Madrid three weeks ago, Israel has insisted, against Arab opposition, that they be resumed in the Middle East, preferably alternating between sites in Israel and the Arab countries.
But only hours before Shamir could make his case to President Bush at their Oval Office meeting last Friday, the State Department issued invitations to all parties to restart the bilateral phase in Washington on Dec. 4.
Israel was not consulted in advance and, in fact, was presented with a fait accompli, which raised lingering suspicions over U.S. intentions.
AN ‘IMPUDENT ULTIMATUM’
Shamir was badly stung but managed to hold his temper better than many of his ministers, who accused the Americans of betrayal and denounced the invitation as an “impudent ultimatum.”
There was no chance that Israel would respond by Nov. 25, the date requested on the U.S. invitation. Shamir conveyed his displeasure by postponing a response at least until after his Inner Cabinet discusses the matter Wednesday.
In the end, Israel has no choice but to accept the invitation, since it has already been accepted by the Palestinians, Jordan and Lebanon.
The only other holdout is Syria, which Israel regards as obstructionist and does not wan to be coupled with.
Nevertheless, Israel’s acceptance of the U.S. invitation will be loaded with conditions. It will demand that the Washington talks be limited to procedural rather than substantive issues and that they be shifted to the Middle East or nearby after one or two sessions in Washington.
Still, many wonder why Israel would risk a quarrel with the United States over a technical matter of where the talks should convene.
Publicly, Israel has argued that as the long-term site of the talks, the U.S. capital would require frequent, exhausting and costly trans-Atlantic shuttling by Israeli delegates to consult with the political decision-makers in Jerusalem.
A Middle East venue, on the other hand, not only would put all of the participants in easy travel distance of their homes but would create a climate of “normalization” in the region, which is what the talks are supposed to be striving for.
CONCERN ABOUT ACTIVE U.S. ROLE
As the argument with Washington has developed over the last few weeks, Israel’s objections have taken a more political hue.
From the viewpoint of Israeli policy-makers, American and Arab enthusiasm for the Washington site reveals a U.S. desire and an Arab intent for the United States to play a continuing substantive role in the talks themselves.
That suspicion seemed to gain corroboration from the letter of invitation to the parties. In it, Secretary of State James Baker reiterated America’s wish not to interfere in the substance of the negotiations. But he proceeded to suggest areas and directions. he thought the talks should take.
Israelis say that contradicts earlier understandings between Jerusalem and Washington that the negotiations were to be a series of separate, one-on-one talks between Israel and its various Arab adversaries, with no outside involvement.
America’s professed role as “honest broker” requires a hands-off posture, not active interventionism, the Israelis say.
Against the background of the rather cavalier treatment they perceive Shamir to have gotten in Washington last week, dread is growing in Jerusalem that the administration is preparing to impose a settlement on the parties.
Many Israelis see evidence that the Bush administration, suddenly beset by domestic woes, is seeking a foreign policy success at any price in the Middle East before the 1992 elections.
Not all Israeli officials subscribe to that view. But the raucous right wing of Shamir’s coalition, which opposed a peace conference from the start, is now clamoring for the talks to be broken off forthwith, with the blame placed on Washington’s “bad faith.”
American officials, for their part, suspect that Israel is “stalling for time,” determined to get nowhere in the peace process until the approach of elections in Israel and the United States next year makes substantial progress impossible.