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Election ’96: Clinton and Israel; Does a Second Term Bode Change?

Those waiting eagerly for the curtain to rise on the diplomatic dance between a second-term President Clinton and Israel’s prime minister may have to wait a little while.

Benjamin Netanyahu has no current plans to visit Washington on his way to Seattle next week to address the Council of Jewish Federations, according to Israeli officials.

It is risky to read too much into this. But bypassing the White House a week after the U.S. election at the very least begs the questions of whether and how relations between the U.S. administration and Israel will be transformed in Clinton’s second term.

Conventional wisdom holds that the importance of the president’s Jewish constituency to his re-election bid has, until now, inhibited him from applying pressure on Netanyahu to make concessions in the peace process with the Palestinians.

A classic example was Clinton’s public restraint during the recent crisis over Israel’s opening of a new entrance to the Jerusalem tunnel, in spite of his personal frustration and sense of betrayal.

But recent weeks have spawned a wide range of speculation about how Middle East diplomacy may change.

All agree, however, that the president’s re-election comes as the landscape of the Middle East and of the peace process is highly volatile:

Wrangling continues over Israeli redeployment from most of Hebron as Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat is reported to have made yet another call at a refugee camp for “jihad,” or holy war;

Israeli Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon has just announced plans to build settlements in the West Bank for 100,000 Jews;

Sharon and some other ministers are boycotting an important economic summit next week in Cairo because of Egypt’s anti-Israel atmosphere; and

Israeli-Syrian tensions are rife.

Some pundits have predicted that, freed from any electoral constraints in a second term, Clinton’s sympathies for Labor Party peace policies will explode into a more heavy-handed style of diplomacy.

They believe that means the administration will put public pressure on the Likud government to go beyond where it is comfortable going, because of its security interests or because of a volatile domestic political landscape.

“I’m predicting real tensions,” said Daniel Pipes, editor of the Middle East Quarterly and author of a new book on the Middle East due out next month.

What he termed the recent close “alignment between Democrats and the Labor Party” ultimately could result in U.S. pressure on Israel to form a national unity government or to call new elections in the hope of seeing a Labor government installed, he said.

Short of that, Pipes said, he expects the administration to press Netanyahu to “carry out Labor’s policies.”

For his part, Netanyahu was reported to have said on the United States’ Election Day that there is a “clear understanding that the one who has to decide on the fateful steps of the State of Israel is first of all the State of Israel.”

Others believe that it is hard to call exactly how Clinton will operate. They say much depends on how he fills the appointment for secretary of state after Warren Christopher’s expected departure as well as on what postures the Palestinians and Israelis adopt at the negotiating table.

But most observers dispute a hard-line scenario, underscoring Clinton’s solid record of support for Israel. They agree that advancing the peace process is a cornerstone of Clinton’s foreign policy and of U.S. interests in the region.

They say the administration may apply more pressure on Netanyahu if he is perceived as stonewalling, but such pressure probably would be subtle.

“There will be some shift, but we shouldn’t exaggerate it,” said one Israeli official who asked not to be named. “Clinton won’t want to alienate Israel. His is a pro-Israel administration.”

The outstanding question is what method the administration will choose to show its displeasure and resolve disputes.

Most believe private diplomacy would be the first option.

Joel Singer, a key Israeli negotiator of the Oslo Declaration of Principles, dismissed for two reasons the idea that the administration would turn heavy- handed in its second term.

“One, I don’t think Clinton believes in putting pressure on Israel,” he said. “And two, the professionals at the State Department and in the White House understand it is not efficient, it is counterproductive. They won’t get the results they’re looking for.”

Further, said the former legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry under the Labor government who is now a partner in a Washington, D.C., law firm, “I don’t think the Netanyahu government will need the pressure; like all Israelis, they want to make peace.”

In any case, observers point to several checks against any radical shift in administration policy that could result in serious public rifts or suspension in aid or arms to Israel.

One is a Congress that is likely to be more conservative than the White House toward Israel, and another is public opinion. Indeed, some say Clinton still has to concern himself with the Jewish vote for his would-be successor four years from now, Vice President Al Gore.

“On top of that, fundamental support and sympathy for Israel by Clinton is unlikely to permit anything more than pressure at the edges,” said Jason Isaacson, the Washington-based director of government and international affairs at the American Jewish Committee.

Steve Grossman, chairman of the board of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, echoed that assessment, recalling private pledges the president made to him to stand by Israel.

“His commitment to support Israel and its people is strong, deep, broad and unequivocal,” he said.

Unlike in previous administrations, Grossman said, Clinton believes that the parties to the peace process “have to work out their disagreements among themselves.”

The president, said Grossman, understands that excessive pressure would erode the perception of “intimacy” between Israel and the United States, which is the key to the success of the negotiations.

Clinton knows that “cracks in the relationship only encourage [Israel's] partners to be more demanding and intransigent,” he added.

But some observers fear that the strains visible between the two governments after the tunnel incident will only increase.

Stagnation in the peace process already is reported to be having an impact on U.S. relations with Arab nations and initiatives in the Persian Gulf, said one source.

In fact, one way the United States could show its displeasure with Israel, said another observer, is by easing up on its intensive efforts to press Arab nations to normalize relations with Israel.

For his part, Singer disagreed that the administration would take the route of abandoning its activism.

“I don’t believe the U.S. can afford to look to the other side when the Middle East atmosphere is so combustible.”

Meanwhile, no one disputes that a host of diplomatic minefields lie ahead, even before the parties turn their attention to the most volatile issues in the final-status talks, such as refugees and the status of Jerusalem. Those talks are scheduled to be completed during Clinton’s second term.

In the short term, Netanyahu must navigate his way through Israeli opposition to and mistrust of the peace process, stepped up since Palestinian police opened fire on Israeli troops after the tunnel opening.

“Because there are so many minefields and the situation is so explosive,” Singer said, “the United States can’t afford to push one side or the other to the minefield” because it will be blamed for the explosion.

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