News Analysis: Policy Disagreements Could Test a New Era in U.s.-israeli Relations
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News Analysis: Policy Disagreements Could Test a New Era in U.s.-israeli Relations

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When the dust settles from official Washington’s euphoria that is greeting Israel’s new prime minister, fundamental policy disagreements are likely to test President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

How they handle the challenge of reconciling differing positions on key issues such as settlements, refugees and borders will set the stage for a crucial period in U.S.-Israeli relations.

Will Clinton articulate positions supporting Israel’s negotiating partners as the Jewish state embarks on an aggressive push for comprehensive peace with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians?

Or will the president hold his tongue if he and Barak, as expected, develop a warm relationship?

These are the questions many pro-Israel activists are asking as the Clinton administration readies a major offensive to support Barak’s efforts to restart Middle East peace talks.

Following meetings with Barak on Thursday and Monday, Clinton plans to send Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the region to help move the process forward.

Virtually overnight, Barak has changed the tone and tenor of a host of relationships with the Arab states, the Palestinians and the United States.

Barak was scheduled to arrive in Washington on Wednesday night, following a Middle East tour that brought him face-to-face with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and Jordan’s King Abdullah.

Barak, who was elected by wide margins in May, has pledged an aggressive and quick push to renew peace negotiations that stalled under former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Barak’s moves to rekindle personal relations with Arab leaders, and specifically his embrace of Arafat as a “partner” has heightened expectations for a final settlement with the Palestinians, a peace treaty with Syria and an agreement that would result in the removal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon.

But as one Barak supporter said, “He won’t just accept the Arab position tomorrow.”

After meeting with Arafat last weekend, Barak frankly discussed the difficulties that lie ahead in the peace talks.

“We are going into tough negotiations with many ups and downs,” Barak said, referring specifically to talks with the Palestinians.

And these potential difficulties many leave wondering how the Clinton administration will handle the peace process when pomp and circumstance gives way to substance.

“There will not necessarily be Israeli-American unanimity. The question is how, in a close relationship, do you overcome differences,” said this Barak supporter who asked not to be identified.

“The atmosphere at this stage will be very important and will affect substance,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, whose group is scheduled to meet with Barak on Sunday in New York.

In the run-up to his first meeting with Barak since the Israeli election, Clinton went out of his way to heap praise on the Israeli premier.

Barak is a much more open and heartfelt supporter of the Oslo peace process than his predecessor, Clinton said at a news conference earlier this month.

Our goal now is to “form a common strategy,” Clinton said.

The remarks hearken back to the last time a Labor Party leader served as Israel’s prime minister.

From 1992 until Netanyahu’s election in 1996, when Israel was led first by the late Yitzhak Rabin and then by Shimon Peres, disagreements, for the most part, were worked out privately and did not spill over into the peace talks.

But when Netanyahu took office, the Clinton administration changed its strategy and adopted what has come to be known as a policy of “snub diplomacy.”

Clinton repeatedly refused to meet with Netanyahu and it took presidential arm- twisting during marathon talks last October to convince Netanyahu to sign the Wye peace accords.

That Wye agreement, which continues to inform the U.S. road map for the peace process, produced a 12-week timetable that married specific Palestinian steps to crack down on terrorism with further Israeli redeployments from the West Bank.

The Palestinians agreed, among other things, to clamp down on terrorists, seize illegal weapons, move to stop incitement and amend the Palestinian Covenant, which called for Israel’s destruction.

In exchange, Israel agreed, among other things, to withdraw from 13 percent of the West Bank in three stages and to open a safe-passage route for Palestinians traveling between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Implementation of the three-phase accord froze after the first four weeks when Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of not complying with its commitments.

After initially flirting with proposals to alter the Wye accord, Barak has pledged to implement the agreement while seeking to move forward with final- status talks.

For his part, Clinton hopes to oversee final-status talks in Washington during a three-way summit with Arafat and Barak later this year.

Despite repeated assurances that it is up to Israel to set the parameters for a settlement with the Palestinians, Clinton has begun to lay out his vision of what a final-status agreement will look.

In many cases, the vision diverges from Barak’s stated views.

In public comments and a letter to Arafat, Clinton has outlined his positions on key issues:

Settlements: Clinton has called them “provocative actions” and has said, “The United States knows how destructive settlements activities, land confiscation and house demolitions are to the pursuit of Palestinian-Israeli peace.”

Barak told Arafat last weekend that while his government would not build any new settlements, it would not dismantle any existing ones and would allow for their natural growth.

Palestinian statehood: “We support the aspirations of the Palestinian people to determine their own future on their own land.” Barak’s Labor Party has dropped its opposition to Palestinian statehood, but maintains statehood is an issue for negotiations.

Palestinian refugees: “I would like it if the Palestinian people felt free and were free to live wherever they liked, wherever they want to live,” Clinton said in a news conference earlier this month.

Israeli officials have repeatedly made clear that they would not accept the so- called Palestinian right of return.

After an uproar, Clinton backed down from his statement, saying in a July 5 letter to the Conference of Presidents, “Let me assure you that there has been no change in U.S. policy on this matter.” Clinton added that the “issue of Palestinian refugees must be dealt with and resolved by the parties themselves.”

Many pro-Israel activists are privately expressing concern that Clinton has undermined Israel’s negotiating position by supporting the Palestinian positions outright.

They also say that Clinton’s desire to secure a quick agreement before he leaves office in 17 months could run counter to Barak’s careful and calculated style.

Publicly, U.S. officials have tried to lower expectations of an immediate breakthrough.

Edward Walker, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, told reporters this week that Barak has “got to have the time it takes to put together his concepts and ideas of how to proceed.”

But Clinton is still pressing for a deal within a year. And while this may seem ambitious, activists say, progress is possible now that Barak has begun direct talks with the Palestinians.

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