WASHINGTON, Dec. 17 (JTA) — President Clinton waited six months before going to a White House podium to scold Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his government’s policy aimed at expanding West Bank settlements. But when Clinton delivered the diplomatic rebuke this week, he did not mince words. “It just stands to reason that anything that pre-empts the outcome of something that both parties have agreed to should be part of the final negotiations, cannot be helpful in making peace,” Clinton said Monday at a news conference, referring to the Likud government’s settlement policy. Settlements are “absolutely” an obstacle to peace, Clinton added. Although relatively gentle in their tone, the comments marked Clinton’s sharpest criticism of Netanyahu to date and heightened speculation over what direction his new foreign policy team would take in pursuing Middle East peace. Will the administration move the peace process to its diplomatic front burner without Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s firm push? Will Secretary of State-designate Madeleine Albright be bitten by the bug that led her predecessors to pursue the so-far-elusive, but potentially crowning achievement of the top U.S. diplomat: comprehensive Middle East peace? Will Clinton, unrestrained by the need to face voters, now turn up the heat on Israel to honor peace accords with the Palestinians that bear the president’s signature? Or were his words, as some observers believe, merely meant as a warning to Netanyahu and a boom of reassurance to the Palestinians? Much is uncertain as tensions in the region escalate. Israeli and Palestinians negotiations have come to a virtual standstill. After a terrorist attack last week in which two Jewish settlers — a mother and a son — were killed, the Israeli Cabinet granted special tax breaks and other financial benefits to settlements. The benefits had been rescinded in 1992 by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The Israeli decision is the latest to contribute to mounting tensions over settlement policy. Since coming to power, the Netanyahu government has approved the expansion of existing settlements in the West Bank and most recently in an area of eastern Jerusalem. Palestinian officials have charged that Israel’s settlement policy flies in the face of the peace process and may result in renewed violence. Palestinians envision the West Bank as part of a future Palestinian state. White House officials carefully shaped Clinton’s reprimand, according to insiders. Administration officials tipped off reporters that Clinton wanted to address the new Israeli policy at a Monday news conference with Irish Prime Minister John Bruton and European Commission President Jacques Santer. When Israeli voters elected Netanyahu in May, Clinton gave Jerusalem increased wiggle room to set its policies. When Netanyahu’s Cabinet approved plans to construct two roads through the West Bank, Clinton urged restraint. “I don’t want to blame them for something they haven’t done yet,” Clinton said in July, pointing out that the construction had not been formally approved by the Prime Minister’s Office. “We expect and believe that Israel will adhere to the agreements it has already made” and not do “anything inconsistent with the commitments made by the Israeli government before it,” Clinton said at the time. This week the president ended his silence and put the ball squarely in Israel’s court by asking the Jewish state to stop its settlement expansion. For now, Israeli officials have dismissed Clinton’s criticism. Israeli government spokesman Moshe Fogel told Israel Radio that the United States and Israel had different perspectives on the impact of Jewish settlements on the peace process. Fogel said of the government’s new policy: “We don’t find it to be in contradiction to the normal process of peace. There is American policy which we respect, but one still has to take into account that we have a different view of the settlements.” Clinton’s comments came just after the release of a letter to Netanyahu from three former secretaries of state and five former senior U.S. officials. The letter urged the Israeli premier to halt the expansion of Jewish settlements in the territories. “We are concerned that unilateral actions, such as the expansion of settlements, would be strongly counterproductive to the goal of a negotiated solution and, if carried forward, could halt progress made by the peace process over the last two decades,” the former officials wrote to Netanyahu. “Such a tragic result would threaten the security of Israel, the Palestinians, friendly Arab states and undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East,” the letter said. The letter’s signatories include ex-Secretaries of State James Baker, Cyrus Vance and Lawrence Eagleburger as well as ex-national security advisers from the Carter, Reagan and Bush administrations, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Frank Carlucci and Brent Scowcroft. Released the morning of Clinton’s comments, the letter mirrored the president’s policy statement. However, the bipartisan criticism of the Israeli premier by such a large number of retired senior U.S. foreign policy officials is highly unusual by diplomatic standards. “Playing around with the issue of settlements right now is asking for real trouble,” Eagleburger said in an interview on CNN. “It’s guaranteed to make the process fail.” However, some former officials refused to sign the letter, though they, too, are opposed to Jewish settlements. “It is not right to bring pressure on one side by a group of distinguished, well-known outsiders, and to select one issue,” Henry Kissinger was quoted as saying in an interview with the Associated Press. At the same time, Kissinger said, “A Palestinian state is coming into being no matter what anyone says. And now there has to be an adjustment of the border.” George Shultz, who also refused to sign the letter, reportedly said he wished that Israel “wouldn’t be so aggressive about the settlements.” While tensions appear to be mounting, Clinton tried to focus attention on the ultimate goal. “The most significant incentive to making peace in the Middle East is the clear consequence of what will flow if it is not made,” he said at his news conference. “This is not a situation in equilibrium here,” he said. “This is a process that, once having been undertaken, is either going to go forward or fall back. It will either lead to greater integration or greater disintegration and greater trouble.”
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