Behind the Headlines: U.S. Domestic Politics Injected into the Crisis in the Middle East

When Benjamin Netanyahu came to the White House this summer for the first time as Israel’s prime minister, U.S. officials widely predicted that it was only a matter of time before the Likud government would face American pressure over its peace policies.

At the same time, the Clinton administration sought to minimize the risks of a confrontation by extracting a pledge from the Israeli leader that there would be no surprises.

But Netanyahu broke this pledge when he ordered the opening of a new entrance to a archaelogical tunnel in Jerusalem last week without advance notice, U.S. officials said.

The move reportedly incensed Clinton and sent the U.S. diplomatic corps into a tailspin as they tried to stop the violence and salvage a peace process once thought to be irreversible.

As Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and Jordan’s King Hussein gathered here this week for a hastily convened Middle East summit, Clinton walked a fine line with considerable political risk only one month before Election Day.

With a commanding lead in national polls and an electoral map heavily in his favor, the last thing the Clinton-Gore campaign wanted was a foreign policy crisis like the one unfolding in the Middle East.

How the crisis in relations between the Israelis and Palestinians plays out at the American ballot box in November largely will depend on the implementation of any agreements brokered here, whether the peace lasts and whether Clinton is seen as pressuring Israel, political activists say.

For their part, Republicans are seizing on the crisis to attack Clinton’s foreign policies.

“The violence is a painful reminder that too many differences have been glossed over in earlier stages of the peace process,” said Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole.

“Neither the United States nor any other party can impose a solution,” Dole said in a statement, adding, “Our friend Israel must not be asked to make concessions as a means of restoring order.”

The Netanyahu government deserves the “full support of the United States at this moment of crisis,” said Dole, who was scheduled to meet with Netanyahu late Tuesday afternoon.

Clinton denied that he has pressured Israel in any way.

“What the United States has done since I have been president is not to pressure anyone, but to get the parties together and to explore alternatives and to see what can be done to find common interest and shared values,” Clinton said in the Oval Office Tuesday as he began his meeting with Netanyahu, Hussein and Arafat.

“Our role is to try to help bring people together” to find solutions, he said.

Aware of the political stakes — inside and outside the Jewish community — the Clinton-Gore campaign’s foreign policy spokesman shot back.

Dole “is on thin ice when talking about pressuring Israel,” the spokesman, James Rubin, said in an interview.

“Sen. Dole has a checkered past when it comes to Israel,” he said, citing the GOP presidential candidate’s 1990 call for a cut in aid to Israel.

Also eager to make inroads into the traditional support Democrats receive from American Jewish voters and to paint Clinton as an ineffective foreign policy president, the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill called on the White House to avoid isolating Israel.

“We believe it would be counterproductive to the long-term prospects for peace in the Middle East” if the meeting “is used as an opportunity to pressure Israel to make unilateral concessions in the face of violence aimed at its people,” Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) wrote in a letter to Clinton.

Gingrich also went on the offensive, initiating an unprecedented conference call Tuesday with Jewish media to attack U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Gingrich, who denied that the recent outreach was politically motivated, said the “abject American failure to deal with” Syrian President Hafez Assad was the root cause of the current crisis.

“This immediate problem can only be understood in the continuous loss of Israeli life and Syrian intransigence,” he said. Israel’s security is “not ours to give away.”

Democratic leaders in Congress also joined the fray. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) sent a letter to the president, supporting his policies, especially his decision to hold the summit.

“Clearly the parties themselves must determine the steps necessary to achieve such a peace. However the leadership and support of our government can facilitate their efforts and help them find a brighter and mores secure future,” the letter said.

As recently as the Democratic convention in Chicago, the Clinton-Gore campaign was banking on a quiet foreign policy arena during the fall campaign season.

Rubin joked in numerous appearances that his job is like that of the Maytag repairman featured in a television commercial, with nothing to do because the machines don’t break.

But now, after the recent escalation in Iraq, reports of Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s failing health and the threat to the Middle East peace process, there is a lot of fixing going on.

But Rubin said this week’s summit was not a political calculation.

“It strikes me that the president’s decision on what to do about the problems in Israel right now are not based on politics, but what is the best course for the peace process,” he said.

But the stakes for Clinton are high.

Jewish voters who had joined the Republican camp largely abandoned President Bush in 1992 in part because he was widely seen as pressuring Israel.

While Clinton still enjoys a reputation as one of the most pro-Israel presidents, he has had the luxury of working with the Israeli administrations of Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, which did not need American prodding in the peace process.

All that has changed, and the administration find itself staking out new ground in its relations with the Jewish state.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher was rebuffed by Netanyahu at the height of last week’s conflict, when America’s senior diplomat asked the Israeli leader to close the new opening to the tunnel.

When U.S. officials called on the parties to avoid “inserting new issues,” this was widely interpreted as criticism of Israel.

But Clinton administration and campaign officials categorically deny any policy shift.

“Pressure is what President Clinton put on Bosnian Serb leaders in the final days of Dayton,” Rubin said, referring to last year’s Ohio peace talks. “This is the exploring of solutions between two allies to end a conflict.”

The crisis in the Middle East has not derailed what officials still hoped would be a triumphant week for Clinton’s outreach to Jewish voters.

The Clinton-Gore campaign was scheduled to unveil its thousands-strong Clinton- Gore Jewish Leadership Council on Tuesday night with satellite hook-ups to more than 60 home parties across the country.

The program, which was set to feature addresses by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Elie Wiesel, included an added note, according to officials: a discussion of the crisis in the Middle East.

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