Clinton’s, Congress’s two-fisted approach


WASHINGTON, Aug. 1 (JTA) — What do you do when your best- laid plans fall apart?

In the aftermath of the Camp David peace summit failure, if you are the U.S. administration you could put your best foot forward, emphasize that progress was made and press ahead.

But President Clinton went a little further when he praised Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak immediately after the end of the summit for his “particular courage, vision and an understanding of the historical importance of this moment.”

In contrast, he could only bring himself to say that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat “made it clear that he too remains committed to the path of peace.”

On a number of fronts, both the administration and Congress have made strong overtures in the last week that support Barak and caution Arafat. Clinton said he supports moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and some in Congress would block to aid to the Palestinians should they unilaterally declare statehood.

The U.S. has been seen before as favoring the Israeli position in the peace process, but now the public moves to shore up support for Barak and put pressure on Arafat demonstrate the accelerated effort on the administration’s part to salvage something from the 15-day summit.

“It’s important that Clinton made it clear who needs to do the compromising,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. “Laying the blame was legitimate.”

In an exclusive interview with Israel Television on July 28, Clinton warned the Palestinians against unilaterally declaring a state, although he did not say whether he would support cutting off aid to the Palestinians if they carry out their threat to declare a state on Sept. 13, the deadline for a final agreement.

“Our entire relationship will be reviewed,” Clinton said. “I think it would be a big mistake to take a unilateral action and walk away from the peace process. And if it happens, there will inevitably be consequences — not just here, but throughout the world, and things will happen.”

Clinton also said he would rethink his position on moving the U.S. embassy, saying there is a designated site in western Jerusalem and the move would be the “right thing to do.”

Such a move would represent a turnabout of Clinton’s long-standing position that moving the embassy would undermine the peace process.

The comments on the embassy were not entirely U.S.-initiated. Barak, who has also suggested in the past that moving the embassy would be premature, had been in contact with the administration and congressional leaders on the issue.

The Israeli Embassy in Washington said it would be “natural, logical and correct” for the U.S. Embassy to be located in Jerusalem. As for whether Barak’s position has changed, spokesman Mark Regev said now is the right time to move forward on the embassy issue because progress could be made.

Such a move “is not inconsistent with the type of discussion at the Camp David summit,” Regev said.

While the administration is pursuing Mideast peace through negotiations and carefully worded statements, the Congress has been more forceful. Since 1995 the Congress has pushed for the embassy move and criticized Clinton for his inaction.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) called Clinton’s remarks on moving the U.S. Embassy “a shot across Arafat’s bow” and commended the president for his negotiating and for actively pursuing talks.

Last week, congressional lawmakers also introduced legislation that would block aid to the Palestinians should they follow through on their oft-repeated threat to unilaterally declare statehood on Sept. 13.

While Specter, a member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, wants the United States to pursue the conciliatory path first, he said he was willing to consider blocking aid to the Palestinians.

“The brass knuckles are ready,” Specter told JTA.

The administration’s clear praise of Barak came at a time when the Israeli leader needed help on the domestic front as he faced a no-confidence vote that could have dissolved his government.

The short-term effect of bolstering Barak may have worked, as Barak’s governing coalition escaped intact on Monday, but the tenor of the U.S. approach and whether it will lead any longer-term results in the peace process is still uncertain.

Some analysts say plans such as relocating the embassy are only symbolic, and the real work has to be done by persuading Arab leaders in the Middle East to use their leverage with Arafat.

Makovsky said U.S. diplomacy with Saudi Arabia and Egypt on the highest level is crucial if the Camp David-level talks are ever to be revived.

Stopping short of alienating Arafat, the United States is working behind the scenes to pressure Arab leaders to convince Arafat he must compromise in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Edward Walker, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, is currently visiting 14 Arab countries, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and will likely ask leaders to push Arafat to be more flexible on eastern Jerusalem, the issue that proved to be the main obstacle to a deal at Camp David.

“Any proposal will need the support of Saudi Arabia, and the United States is realizing that,” said Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The U.S. thought Arafat could do it on his own.”

Arafat met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak immediately following the collapse of the summit, and Sunday he visited Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Also as part of the American effort, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called various Arab leaders last week, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.

Albright traveled to Rome to meet with the foreign minister of the Vatican this week to discuss the Middle East peace process, although State Department officials would not say whether the United States was now considering the internationalization of Jerusalem, a long-held Vatican position.

The U.S. focus on moving things forward has highlighted that the problems are on Arafat’s side, said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank.

But U.S. praise of Israel is temporary and America will soon ask its ally to make more accommodations, he said.

“The U.S. will look to Israel to bend, and Israel will be flexible,” Pipes speculated. “That’s been the pattern for the past seven years.”

The U.S. push forward is “bullheaded,” according to Pipes, and becoming an end in itself, rather than a means toward pursuing America’s goal of stability in the region.

Meanwhile, senior Israeli and Palestinian negotiators from Camp David met in Jericho on Sunday to continue negotiations, even if their meeting was more symbolic than substantive.

And if Clinton cannot produce more substantive support for Barak and compromise from Arafat quickly, his promises may end up being just symbolic as well.

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