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Five Years After Oslo: U.S.-Israel Relations Reflect Ups, Downs of Peace Process

When Yitzhak Rabin grasped Yasser Arafat’s extended hand five years ago, observers from around the world tried to describe the sea change in Israeli-Palestinian relations that took place on the White House lawn.

Almost all agreed that no superlatives adequately characterized that moment in history.

Exuberant guests, including American Jewish and Arab American leaders, who gathered for the Sept. 13, 1993, signing of the Declaration of Principles bubbled with hope that negotiators had solved one of the seemingly intractable conflicts of the 20th century.

After decades of bloodshed, the Palestinians and Israelis had committed themselves to negotiate a peaceful solution to their conflict.

And they had achieved their initial agreements through direct talks without the assistance of the United States.

Five years later, the nature of the American role in the peace process has shifted dramatically — U.S. officials are actively involved in the talks and an American plan for advancing the process is on the table.

At the same time, the warming in U.S.-Israel relations that followed the 1993 agreement has chilled considerably since the peace process deadlocked some 18 months ago.

Few anticipated the dramatic impact the signing ceremony would have on this relationship. Struck in Oslo one month earlier, the Declaration of Principles laid the road map for the historic reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

"These accords were not intended to affect the Israel-U.S. relationship," said Joel Singer, the primary author of the Declaration of Principles.

Singer, an Israeli attorney who lives in Washington, called the initial boost in relations "a fringe benefit."

But as the hope generated by a series of Israeli-Palestinian agreements, the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty and the launching of Israeli-Syrian peace talks eventually gave way to terrorism, assassination and stalemate, Israel’s relations with the Palestinian Authority regressed — and the rocky road in the Middle East did not spare relations between Washington and Jerusalem.

Many analysts argue that there are in fact two chapters in the Oslo process: the one written by Rabin and Peres, in which Washington played the role of a friendly observer; and the second, which began after Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister in 1996 and the United States became directly involved.

The Oslo accords caught the Clinton administration off-guard. American officials did not learn of the agreement until after a small group of Palestinians and Israelis concluded secret talks in the Norwegian capital.

Rabin called then-U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher in August 1993, told him that "something important has developed" and asked him to meet with Peres, according to Singer, who was in Rabin’s office at the time. Christopher cut short his vacation and, at an army base in California, received Peres, Singer and two senior Norwegian officials who sponsored the secret talks.

"Christopher is a person whose face never reveals his emotions. For the first time, he showed complete surprise," Singer said in a telephone interview this week, recalling the moment the secretary of state heard that the two sides had reached an agreement.

Two weeks later, the accords were signed and Rabin and Clinton began a closeness that an Israeli premier and an American president had never before shared.

Rabin was like a father figure to Clinton. In meetings he was known to interrupt Clinton, treating him with a brash intimacy that shocked many veteran Israeli and American diplomats.

After Rabin was struck down by an assassin’s bullet in November 1995, Clinton emerged puffy-eyed from the Oval Office to eulogize his friend in the Rose Garden.

The White House then unofficially put its weight behind Peres in the Israeli election.

After Peres lost in May 1996, one Jewish official compared the likely future to the biblical story of Joseph’s dream.

But instead of seven years of good harvest followed by seven years of famine, this official speculated that the U.S. and Israel, which had just enjoyed four years of good relations, would suffer through four years of tension.

Indeed, Netanyahu’s administration has been marked by periods of open strife with the White House over the peace process.

Some blame the dynamic on the Oslo accords themselves.

"At this five year point" the accords "appear to have made the relationship more difficult rather than the reverse," said Daniel Pipes, the director of the Middle East Forum, a think tank.

"Things go along swimmingly when Israel makes concessions," Pipes said.

But when Israel says "enough," Pipes said, the relationship grows "more sour."

In fact, Clinton is known to have told friends that he blames Netanyahu for nearly destroying the peace process. According to one friend of the president, Clinton became once animated during a conversation and said he’s not going to allow Netanyahu to scuttle an agreement that he personally signed.

But in spite of the ups and downs, which saw Clinton close the White House doors to Netanyahu, there is no impact on the overall relationship between the two allies, most pro-Israel activists say.

"The peace process has always been an essential ingredient of the US-Israel relationship since the time of Camp David," said Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is marking the anniversary by hosting a Capitol Hill briefing on the accords.

"The bedrock of the relationship has withstood the ups and downs of the peace process," Kohr said.

"The tone of the relationship is affected."

But Pipes, who is critical of the Clinton administration’s policy, said that since Netanyahu came to power "there has been a sense of increasing sourness" and "annoyed relations."

But unlike Kohr, Pipes believes that there has been damage to U.S.-Israel relations.

Because America senses that something has been given and then retracted, "it’s created long-term problems."

The relationship between the two allies has deteriorated since Netanyahu invited the United States to take a greater role in the peace talks.

For the first time American negotiators sat between the Palestinians and Israelis, mediating their differences. Now the parties are negotiating over an American peace plan, a far cry from the secret talks conducted directly between the Israelis and Palestinians in Oslo five years ago.

"Does that raise problematic questions? Yes. But the alternative to America not playing that role is the end of Oslo," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Saperstein is scheduled to speak at a pro-Oslo-accords rally here Sunday that has been endorsed by the Reform and Conservative movements and leaders of many other Jewish groups.

Oslo is still "a process that holds the best chance for peace in the Middle East," he said.

Of course, not everyone in the Jewish community agrees with the rally’s premise.

The Zionist Organization of America this week published a scathing 52-page report of Palestinian violations of the Oslo accords.

"We see very little evidence that Arafat has transformed himself from the terrorist that he always was," said Morton Klein, ZOA’s president.

"Is Israel better off on the five-year anniversary of Oslo than on the day that Oslo was signed? Most of us would say that Israel is not."

But with negotiators on the brink of a breakthrough agreement on the transfer of additional West Bank land to the Palestinians, Sunday’s rally could turn into a celebration.

Israeli and American officials in the United States have begun to make arrangements for a possible summit meeting between Clinton, Netanyahu and Arafat at the end of this month.

Both Arafat and Netanyahu plan to speak around Sept. 23, which is the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.

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