For Now, U.S. Nudging Israel
Urgent but quiet pleas, not strong-arming, were on the diplomatic menu at the State Department this week as the target date to begin implementation of the Wye River Memorandum came and went without much action on the ground.
But observers warned that U.S. pressure is likely to resume if what is seen by administration officials as Israeli foot-dragging continues.
Officials here were caught off guard by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement that implementation of the Wye accord will not begin until it is approved by both his fractious cabinet and the Knesset.
Complicating matters further were several Israeli actions on the explosive question of Jewish settlements, including the building of a fence in the Ras al Amud neighborhood in East Jerusalem — where Jewish settlers hope to move
— and the expansion of Kiryat Arba, near the tense city of Hebron.
“In our view we would not want to see unilateral actions of this kind taken,” said State Department spokesman James Rubin, speaking of the Kiryat Arba expansion. “If we go back to business as usual, which means undermining the confidence that has been created at Wye, we’ll be out of business.”
In several phone conversations with Netanyahu, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned that new settlements projects would be seen as violating the Wye River Memorandum, barring unilateral actions that would preempt final status negotiations.
Early in the week, officials engaged in a transatlantic spat over whether the Palestinians had provided the detailed security plans required by the agreement signed at the White House last month.
According to the State Department, the Palestinians provided a detailed plan.
But Netanyahu flatly rejected that argument and postponed Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, which was scheduled to take up the agreement, until the Palestinian Authority supplied satisfactory documents and provided assurances that 30 Palestinians wanted for killing Israelis would be arrested.
Also on Tuesday, sources said that Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon — due in Washington this week for bilateral discussions with the administration and for the opening of final status with the Palestinians — was unable to travel because of an ear infection.
Sharon’s illness and the travel schedules of various negotiators, they said, could put off the start of the key talks by as much as a month.
Jewish leaders were watching with concern as the slow-motion diplomatic dance continued.
“The administration is very aware of the potential problems,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League. “They’re doing a lot of handholding right now. There’s a feeling that at Wye, there was a major breakthrough of the psychological barrier at the leadership level. From the administration’s point of view, they can’t afford to let that be lost.”
New Israel-U.S. Security Deal
This week’s signing of a new security agreement between Israel and the United States is a significant step forward in strategic cooperation between the two countries, according to observers in Washington. But its real importance will depend on details yet to be discussed.
The memorandum of understanding includes a U.S. promise to help Israel defend itself against a new generation of ballistic missiles, although it does not require military action against countries that attack Israel — something that would be part of a full-fledged military alliance, which neither country wants.
Netanyahu signed the memorandum in Jerusalem; Clinton signed at the White House over the weekend.
At the signing, Netanyahu said that the agreement “increases the strategic relations between Israel and the United States by a notch.”
Washington sources say the agreement will upgrade intelligence sharing and increase cooperation in weapons development, although details have been left to a joint committee.
“The agreement could be important because it clearly states that missile attacks on Israel would be looked on gravely in Washington,” said Shoshana Bryen, special projects director for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). The expanded strategic relationship, she said, offers many of the advantages of a full military alliance without the obvious disadvantages.
“Nobody wants to be bound to the other guy’s concepts of who the bad guys are — nor should they be,” she said. “There’s a recognition in both countries that sometimes, they will have different policy goals.”
A defense specialist for a major Jewish group described the agreement as “a significant ratcheting up of the strategic relationship.”
Shift On Religious Liberty Law
Supporters of the Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA), which died in the frenzied last days of the 105th Congress, are trying to hold their coalition together for a big push in the 106th. But increasingly, they seem to be fighting a losing battle.
Earlier in the year, the law seeking to prevent governments from using public money or zoning ordinances to interfere with religious practices was gutted by a House committee in response to complaints from activists on the far fringes of the Christian right.
But the proposed law is also under growing pressure from activists who worry that it might allow state and local governments to carve out big exemptions from civil rights and gay rights laws on religious grounds.
A growing number of Jewish participants in the coalition say prospects for easy passage are bleak — and that activists would do better to focus their attention on the passage of state and local religious liberties laws, where they have been more successful in recent years.
“Nobody is abandoning federal legislation, but there is definitely an upgrading of the importance of state laws,” said Marc Stern, legal director of the American Jewish Congress and a leading member of the religious liberties coalition.
He also said that the likelihood that the Judiciary Committee will be preoccupied with impeachment proceedings is forcing a reevaluation of the federal effort.