YITZHAK RABIN When Yitzhak Rabin arrives in Washington next week, the Israeli prime minister may find the changed political landscape difficult territory in which to shore up support for Israel and its peace policies.
In meetings scheduled to begin on Monday, he will be seeking support both within the beleaguered Democratic administration and among the Republican majorities that will soon control both houses of Congress.
During the past two years of the Clinton presidency, Rabin’s job in pursuing these goals has been nearly effortless. Never have an American administration and an Israeli government been so closely aligned in their thinking.
Rabin left Israel this week for a visit to North America timed to coincide with an address Thursday to the Council of Jewish Federations’ annual General Assembly.
When he meets with Clinton on Monday, Rabin and the U.S. president will be able to compare notes on how to confront the political doldrums that have set in at the midpoint of their respective administrations.
While Clinton has a Republican victory of historic proportions to contend with as a result of last week’s midterm elections, Rabin finds himself in a similarly difficult position domestically, with recent polls showing him running neck-and-neck with Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
Unless the trends reflected in the polls are reversed, Rabin and his Labor Party could find themselves sitting in the opposition benches after Israel’s next elections in 1996.
Rabin may have time to worry about the Israeli elections, but a far more pressing concern for him as he prepares for his Washington visit is whether last week’s stunning Republican victories all across the United States will alter the current state of Israeli U.S. relations.
Within the Israeli Foreign Ministry, there are differing opinions regarding Clinton’s standing when he attempts to deal with the Republican Congress that takes power in January.
Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovich, along with many other senior diplomats, believes the president’s foreign-policy standing will not be weakened.
Indeed, it may actually be strengthened, some say, because he may seek greater involvement in foreign affairs as he finds himself stymied by the Republican majority with regard to his domestic agenda.
This analysis has been challenged by the Foreign Ministry Policy Planning Unit, a small team of analysts who issue policy papers on current events several times each month.
This group suggested last week in an internal memo leaked to the Israeli media that Clinton may become a “lame duck” in foreign affairs for much of his remaining two Years, and that Israel should act accordingly.
Whatever Clinton’s future stature, Israeli diplomats worry about support for Israel’s policies in the new Congress.
Most diplomats and observers predict that aid to Israel will not be reduced, though Rabin will have to work harder for the annual $3 billion in economic and military aid than in the past.
But they fear that financial support and other inducements directed at the peace process – especially those dangles before the Syrians and Palestinians in an attempt to woo them into line – may fall prey to a new mood of parsimony on Capitol Hill.
Some Israeli government analysts say that a new American reluctance to spread dollars abroad may actually prod Syria toward taking a major step forward in its negotiations with Israel.
But others are less optimistic, saying any American tight-fistedness will reduce Syria’s motivation to be forthcoming in the peace negotiations.
With prominent Republican senators like Jesse Helms (R_N.C.) railing against the cost of foreign aid and the dangers of foreign involvement, Israel may find it difficult to advance its agenda on Capitol Hill.
Helms, who is expected to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, lashed out at the U.S. foreign aid program at a news conference last week, saying America “has spent an estimated $2 trillion of the American taxpayers’ money, much of it going down foreign rat-holes to countries that constantly oppose us in the United Nations and many of which rejected the concepts of freedom.”
An aide to Helms later said the senator puts Israel in a separate, favored category when it comes to dispensing foreign aid.
But in the past Helms has said that while military aid to Israel should be regarded as untouchable, economic aid should be re-examined.
At his news conference, Helms also expressed suspicion about the motives of Syrian President Hafez Assad.
“Syria doesn’t want peace with Israel. What Syria wants is the Golan Heights plus, of course, access to the American taxpayers’ money,” he said.
“Congress needs to get off the dime and demand a reassessment of the entire Middle East peace process so that we can know in advance what our commitments will be,” Helms said.
With Helms and his Republican colleagues suddenly calling the shots on Capitol Hill, Rabin will have an uphill battle convincing the new congressional leadership that American money and prestige still ought to be committed to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace process and to a yet-unattained Israeli- Syrian accord.
With regard to Syria, there are some at the top of Israel’s political-defense establishment who have been urging that Israel seek a formal defense agreement or alliance with the United States as its “price” for surrendering that most vital of strategic assets, the Golan Heights, in return for peace with Syria.
But if Helms and like-minded Republicans set the foreign-policy agenda in Washington, defense alliances are not likely to be readily available for Israel – no matter what risks it is prepared to undertake for peace.
But even Israeli government “minimalists,” who do not aim as high as a formal U.S. alliance, will insist on a massive American commitment to various forms of military and intelligence assistance – all of it costly – as Israel’s necessary compensation for giving up the Golan.
Another obstacle could present itself as Jewish American and Israeli activists opposed to Rabin’s policies are likely to receive a greater hearing in the new Congress than they did in the old one.
These opposition forces have latched on to the vexing issue of a possible American military presence on the Golan in the event of a peace accord as a means of persuading American opinion to oppose a land-for-peace deal with Syria.
Rabin has always prided himself on his credibility; it is his strongest asset on the Israeli domestic political scene.
In America, he will have to work overtime in order to persuade his various target audiences – members of the Clinton administration, Congress, opinion makers and the American Jewish leadership – that the course he has set for Israel is, despite its many painful pitfalls, still the best course.