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News Analysis: Recent Remarks Revive Question; is U.S. Meddling in Israeli Election?

The U.S. State Department’s decision to accuse Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of breaking his word and to question his commitment to the peace process would have been remarkable at any time.

But coming only five weeks before Israelis go to the polls, the accusations have renewed charges that the Clinton administration is meddling in the May 17 elections.

The dispute centers around West Bank settlements, which for decades have been a flash point of tension between Washington and Jerusalem.

What’s unusual is the personal criticism that was leveled from the State Department podium, Middle East analysts say.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu has told us at all levels, on many occasions, that as a matter of policy there would be no new settlements and no expansion of settlements beyond their contiguous periphery,” State Department spokesman James Rubin told reporters April 14.

“Contrary to what we were told, we see an accelerated pattern of Israeli actions that involve both construction of new settlements as well as an expansion of settlements well beyond their contiguous periphery.”

Rubin went on to say: “Both sides have an obligation to do their part to create an environment for the pursuit of peace and the achievement of peace. The issue is whether the government of Israel is serious about doing its part to create the proper environment for peace.”

By all accounts, Rubin’s tongue was unusually — and intentionally — sharp.

American supporters of Netanyahu’s settlement policy jumped to Netanyahu’s defense, accusing the U.S. administration of meddling in Israel’s election campaign.

“The naked bias is so transparent,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Echoing charges made privately by Israeli officials, Klein said, “The fact that Clinton condemns Israel while ignoring the Palestinian Arabs’ building at 10 times the rate of the Israelis is just another example of the disturbing and transparent objective of President Clinton to work for Netanyahu’s defeat.”

The administration denies that it is interfering in the Israeli elections.

“It’s a fact,” Dennis Ross said in an interview Monday, referring to Netanyahu’s promise not to expand settlements. “What should we do, say nothing?” he asked.

“I do not believe it is meddling,” said Ross, the administration’s chief Middle East negotiator. Instead it is a desire to live up to the promise of the Wye accords, under which the United States promised to oppose any unilateral acts.

“Unilateral actions affect both sides,” Ross said.

It’s no secret that President Clinton, who is counting on a successful conclusion to the Israeli- Palestinian peace process to shore up his legacy, would rather see Labor Party candidate Ehud Barak or Yitzhak Mordechai, the Center Party candidate, beat Netanyahu.

Despite the public line, administration officials privately say they would not be unhappy if the increased tension with the United States hurt Netanyahu with the centrist and moderate voters who hold the key to Israel’s election.

At the same time, the White House is trying not to alienate Netanyahu too much, knowing that there is at least a 50-50 chance that the Likud leader will be re- elected and the administration will need to continue to work with him.

For its part, the Israelis tried to downplay the recent statements on settlements, saying that “Israel and the United States have always had their differences on the matter.”

The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement last week that “Israel’s policy is to enable the development and expansion of existing communities in Judea and Samaria” and that the government “has no plans to build new communities” in the area.

To be sure, Clinton is not as blunt in his opposition as Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has been in his endorsement of Netanyahu.

“I don’t really want to interfere in Israeli politics,” Primakov said last month at a toast for Netanyahu during the Israeli premier’s visit to Russia.

“But if I were an Israeli citizen, I’d vote for Mr. Netanyahu in these coming elections.”

Still, Clinton’s rocky relations with Netanyahu have become part of the election subplot. Since Netanyahu took office he has clashed repeatedly with Clinton.

The relationship began on a sour note in July 1996 when Clinton defended foreign aid to Israel at a joint news conference with Netanyahu, only to see the Israeli leader tell Congress that he would work to cut the aid.

More recently, Clinton asked those in attendance at a prayer breakfast to pray for “the peacemakers” and did not mention Netanyahu in a long list that included Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and Leah Rabin, the wife of the slain Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.

In fact, Clinton has engaged in what has come to be labeled “snub diplomacy” when it comes to Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has not met with the president since Clinton traveled to the Middle East in December to witness the Palestinian vote to annual the charter of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which called for the destruction of Israel.

Since then, Vice President Al Gore refused a meeting with Netanyahu in Switzerland. And first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton skipped Israel on a recent tour of the Middle East, claiming she didn’t want to interfere in the elections.

This is not the first time that Clinton has visibly supported Netanyahu’s opponent.

One month before the 1996 election, Clinton hosted Shimon Peres, the sitting prime minister, at the White House. In a meeting noted for its warm, relaxed atmosphere, Clinton asked Peres how to spell his name in Hebrew. Clinton then copied a Hebrew spelling of “Bill” that Peres wrote on a pad.

Peres returned to Israel with a host of American goodies, including anti- terrorism aid and promises to negotiate a formal U.S.-Israel strategic agreement. But the strategy failed, as Peres narrowly lost the election to Netanyahu.

This year, while Netanyahu was trying unsuccessfully to get into the White House, Clinton found time to meet with Labor Party and Center Party leaders.

Clinton held a lengthy private meeting in February with Peres, now the No. 2 official in the Labor Party. Mordechai received a private meeting with the president last month.

Later that day after a reception honoring Rabin, Mordechai and Daniel Abraham, a long-time Clinton supporter and advocate for the peace process, walked up to Clinton.

Shaking their hands, Clinton told Mordechai, “Maybe he can do for you what he did for me twice,” the president said, apparently referring to Abraham’s financial support in helping him win two presidential elections.

Meanwhile, there seems to be a resignation that regardless of the outcome of the Israeli elections, the U.S. administration knows that nothing will happen on the Israeli-Palestinian front until after the results are in.

“There is no ability to move forward until after the Israeli elections,” Ross said.

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