News Analysis: Clinton’s Visit Can Save Wye or Save Coalition, but Not Both

President Clinton’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian self-rule areas may save the faltering Wye agreement. But in doing so, it may also bring an end to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Alternately, Clinton may find himself rebuffed by his Israeli hosts. And this treatment of Clinton may prove the salvation of Netanyahu’s battered and tottering regime.

But Wye will be dead.

These appeared to be the two most likely scenarios as hundreds of U.S. officials and security people descended on Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip this week to prepare for what was to be a historic odyssey by Clinton — but what threatens to become a strange and sad voyage.

The Israeli domestic stage was set Monday night when the Knesset, on the verge of voting no confidence in Netanyahu and ending his rule, resolved to give him a two-week respite.

The vote will now be held Dec. 21, several days after Clinton’s departure from the region.

If the hard-line right — which has made common cause with the Labor-led opposition — believes that the premier is going ahead with Wye, it will provide the votes to topple him.

If, on the other hand, the U.S. president is forced to leave empty-handed, with the Wye agreement effectively frozen and no further Israeli redeployment on the West Bank under way, then the hard-liners will relent and Netanyahu’s nationalist-religious coalition will live on — though Israel’s relations with Washington will presumably sink to a new low.

There is a third possibility, less likely — but more hopeful.

Netanyahu, trapped by the conflicting forces of his coalition and exhausted by his own indefatigable efforts to keep the coalition together, may use the president’s visit as a catalyst to create a broad-based government with the Labor Party.

According to some political insiders, a unity government is much less remote than either Likud or Labor, in their various public statements, would have us believe.

These sources hint at ongoing contacts between Netanyahu and Labor leader Ehud Barak, despite Barak’s purported rejection of all talk of unity.

They point to the still-potent influence of Labor’s former leader, Shimon Peres, who never tires of advocating unity as the only means for ensuring progress in the peace process.

They say that Netanyahu’s failed attempt this week to bring former Foreign Minister David Levy back into the coalition fold was in fact a first step toward creating a unity government.

Whichever of these scenarios eventually pans out, this much is already clear: Clinton’s mission to save the Israeli-Palestinian peace will be overshadowed to a large extent by the president’s sally into the heart of Israeli domestic politics.

There seems no escaping Henry Kissinger’s shrewd observation, made more than two decades ago, that Israel has no foreign policy — just domestic politics.

Presumably, the American president did not plan to find himself in the center of Israeli politics when he agreed to make the visit as part of the Wye agreement.

He and his advisers had anticipated that by this stage Wye would desperately need a direct dose of presidential diplomacy to keep Israel and the Palestinian Authority on track.

There is some dispute at this point as to whether Clinton or Israel suggested the visit. But during the Wye negotiations in late October, Netanyahu and his team of ministers were insistent that the Palestinians revoke the anti-Israel clauses in the Palestinian Covenant at a full-fledged session of the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s parliament-in-exile.

The Netanyahu government has consistently rejected the Palestinians’ claim that the PNC did, in fact, revoke the offensive clauses of the covenant in April 1996, at the behest of then-Prime Minister Peres.

Aware of Arafat’s own domestic political difficulties, Clinton either suggested or agreed to participate in a meeting in Gaza of PNC members and other Palestinians leaders.

The revocation of the covenant’s clauses is expected to be dealt with by acclamation in the president’s presence.

For Israel’s hard-liners, acclamation is hard to swallow, since it will presumably be a blurring of the formal vote on the clauses that Israel had demanded.

Opposition to the president’s involvement has grown inside Netanyahu’s coalition in recent weeks — in tandem with an ominous increase in violence across the West Bank.

A bitter dispute between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the categories of prisoners to be released under Wye has triggered daily demonstrations in the West Bank, many of which escalate into confrontations between Palestinian youths and Israeli troops.

The stoning and savage beating of an Israeli soldier near Ramallah last week, filmed by television crews called in by the Palestinians in advance, triggered a wave of shock and revulsion throughout Israel.

Netanyahu seized on it to announce a halt in the Wye implementation process.

Other Israelis traveling on West Bank roads have been stoned, and, in several cases, shot at by Palestinians.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon informed U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Washington that Israel would not be implementing the second stage of the Wye redeployment, scheduled for next week.

According to some Israeli media reports, Sharon suggested to Albright — as other ministers had suggested during Sunday’s weekly Cabinet session — that Clinton should perhaps consider postponing his trip.

Washington cynics say this is the last thing the president wants to consider, given his desire to put many miles between himself and Capitol Hill as the House Judiciary Committee approaches its vote on impeachment.

Clinton and Albright could take some comfort in the fact that Netanyahu and his aides declined to endorse Sharon’s statement that the redeployment would not go ahead.

And Netanyahu himself was quickly back bobbing and weaving between hard-liners and moderates.

“We will carry out the agreement,” he told the Knesset on Monday night, “if the Palestinians carry out their part. At present they are defaulting on every single provision.”

The premier’s comments came after he engineered a delay in a Knesset vote that threatened to topple his government.

The reprieve came with the help of one of his coalition members, the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc, which requested that a Knesset vote on a bill calling for early elections be considered a no-confidence motion.

Under Knesset rules, the group’s request put off Monday’s Knesset vote by at least one week.

But the Labor Party, which submitted the bill calling for new elections, agreed to a delay of an additional week in order to avoid holding the vote during Clinton’s visit.

As for Clinton, he would be “a welcome guest,” the prime minister told a television interviewer later Monday evening.

But, asked the reporter, “according to today’s headlines, you told the Cabinet yesterday: `If he wants to come, let him come; if he doesn’t want to come, let him not come.’ That’s hardly the way to speak of a welcome guest.”

“Don’t believe what you read in the newspapers,” the premier muttered.

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