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News Analysis: Confrontations with U.s., E.u. Play into Netanyahu’s Campaign

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Israel’s relations with the United States and the European Union have deteriorated in recent weeks, and political observers are already wondering how this will play out in Israel’s May 17 elections.

Some pundits say they detect no desire on the part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to soft-pedal these differences — which include a much-trumpeted disagreement with the European Union over the status of Jerusalem — since such issues can play well in his campaign.

Similarly, a series of recent criticisms of the Netanyahu government from the Clinton administration over such issues as settlement expansion give the prime minister the opportunity to clothe himself as a staunch defender of Israel’s interests.

Coupled with these criticisms have been several recent actions by members of the Clinton administration that have been perceived here as definite snubs of Netanyahu.

Some political observers view these public criticisms and diplomatic snubs as attempts to interfere in Israel’s election campaign and boost Netanyahu’s opponents.

Of course, American and European officials publicly deny this interpretation.

But if they do harbor such intentions, the strategy may well backfire: Assaults on Israel’s emotion-laden claim to a united Jerusalem, or on its reluctance to cede the Golan Heights, can easily result in bolstered support for Netanyahu among the Israeli electorate.

Aware of this, Netanyahu’s opponents in the race for prime minister — Labor Party leader Ehud Barak and centrist leader Yitzhak Mordechai — are now trying to convince the public that they are every bit as devoted to Jerusalem and the Golan as Netanyahu.

On the left side of the Israeli political spectrum, the deterioration in Israel’s relations with U.S. and E.U. officials is being held up as evidence of the Netanyahu government’s mishandling of the nation’s foreign policy.

For Netanyahu’s supporters on the political right, it is evidence of the charge that the West is meddling in the election campaign.

Despite the overwhelming passage this week and last of a resolution by both houses of the U.S. Congress opposing a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood, diplomats and political commentators here sense an ongoing slippage in Israel’s standing with the Clinton administration — and a simultaneous improvement in the relationship between Washington and the Palestinian Authority.

While Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is preparing to meet with President Clinton next week — in what will be his second trip to Washington this year — no Clinton-Netanyahu meetings appear in the cards.

And last week, during a tour of the Middle East, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen pointedly let it be known that his own belatedly and hastily arranged call on Netanyahu had not been a result of his initiative, but rather the premier’s.

And, as if to deny the premier any political points from the meeting, Cohen set up similar meetings with Barak and Mordechai.

While in Cohen’s case the cold-shouldering of the prime minister is a matter of interpretation, other recent U.S. moves seem to leave little doubt of the Clinton administration’s impatience with the Netanyahu government.

As a case in point, U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross last Friday told Reuters that Israeli settlement activity is “very destructive to the pursuit of peace.”

Ross rarely speaks on the record to the media. He knows, moreover, all the nuanced phraseology of past U.S. policy pronouncements on such troubling issues as settlements.

But in the telephone interview with Reuters, Ross was apparently determined to put firmly on the record American officials’ mounting frustration with settlement expansion.

As if to make sure the message got through, the spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv reiterated Ross’ comments on Monday, saying that U.S. officials “have been troubled by the expansion of existing settlements well beyond their periphery.”

Netanyahu’s adviser, David Bar-Illan, rejected the charge, saying all settlement construction is taking place within the existing “municipal boundaries of these communities.”

But American officials are frustrated with such assertions. As they try to keep a tally of settlement activity, those boundaries seem remarkably vague and flexible indeed.

In what is being viewed as another American snub, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Martin Indyk, paid a weekend visit to Syria, but made no plans to travel to Israel.

After meeting Sunday with Syrian President Hafez Assad and Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, Indyk spoke of “preparing the ground” for a resumption of Israeli-Syrian negotiations after the Israeli elections.

Of course, Indyk was careful to avoid any hint of preference regarding the outcome of those elections. But the fact that the Israel-Syrian talks have been paralyzed since Netanyahu took office in 1996 — coupled with Indyk’s omission of Israel from his itinerary — seemed to indicate that the American envoy and his Syrian hosts were discussing a post-Netanyahu scenario.

This diplomatic sortie provoked an angry reaction from the political right – – which proclaimed its loyalty to the Golan Heights and attacked what they said is the Labor Party’s willingness to cede all of the strategic Golan for nothing more than a paper peace with Assad.

Barak, never keen to spell out the full extent of his potential moderation – – fearing he will prompt defections to the Likud — prefers to dwell on what he describes as the barrenness of the Netanyahu government’s position regarding southern Lebanon.

Because of Netanyahu’s refusal to negotiate land-for-peace with Syria, Barak claims, the Israeli army has no way out from the Lebanese quagmire, where Syria is the leading power broker and guerrillas continue to take a toll on Israeli soldiers’ lives.

Another cold wind blowing across U.S.-Israeli relations was disclosed Monday by the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, which reported that American officials had instructed a group of retired U.S. generals visiting Israel that they should not participate in a tour of eastern Jerusalem and the Golan Heights because they are occupied territories.

The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv said the directive reflected standing U.S. policy — but just the same, it came as another slap in the face.

Then, along with all the perceived American assaults, there was the E.U. attack on the status of Jerusalem.

The issue erupted when Germany’s ambassador to Israel, Theodor Wallau, wrote a letter last week to the Israeli Foreign Ministry about the status of the city.

Wallau, whose country currently holds the rotating E.U. presidency, stated that the European Union considers Jerusalem a separate entity from Israel under the terms of a 1947 U.N. resolution.

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon convened all the foreign ambassadors stationed in Israel to solemnly rebut the letter.

Israel regards the resolution, which called in part for the internationalization of Jerusalem, as “null and void,” Sharon told the foreign envoys. He added that Resolution 181 was meaningless because the 1947 partition plan proposed by the United Nations had been rejected at the time by Israel’s Arab neighbors.

In a subsequent press briefing, Sharon added, “Israel will never make any concessions on Jerusalem — never.”

Wallau had sent the letter in reply to demands by Israel’s Foreign Ministry that visiting E.U. officials not meet with Palestinian officials at Orient House, the Palestinians’ de facto headquarters in eastern Jerusalem.

Wallau insisted there would be no change in E.U. practices — meaning that its ministers’ meetings at Orient House would continue.

On the face of it, the tart E.U. response was especially embarrassing for Netanyahu because he has repeatedly claimed during the election campaign that his government had succeeded in putting a stop to the Palestinian Authority’s diplomatic activities at Orient House.

But some political pundits believe the European officials who say it was the Israeli government — not any of the foreign embassies — that leaked the ostensibly embarrassing exchange of letters.

After all, the observers say, the letters have given the premier — and Sharon — a platform from which to attack the enemies of a united Jerusalem.

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