American officials privately acknowledge US President Bill Clinton's undisguised embrace of Shimon Peres during the 1996 Israeli elections backfired. Sensing undue outside pressure, many Israeli voters opted late for Binyamin Netanyahu.
After the Wye accords forced early elections, the Clinton administration has hailed its efforts to avoid making this mistake again. Yet a recent series of less-than-subtle snubs has exposed thinly-veiled partiality. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was too busy to meet with Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon. Vice President Al Gore had no time for Netanyahu at the Davos economic forum. And State's Martin Indyk avoided Israel on his current regional tour. Only Israel-friendly Defense Secretary William Cohen broke ranks, deciding at the last minute it would be "too rude" to ignore PM Netanyahu at the end of a 9-nation Mid-east tour. He eventually called on all three main candidates for prime minister, "to maintain neutrality."
Recent policy statements go even further in revealing the leanings of the Clinton camp and its disrespect for Israeli democracy. Commenting in Morocco, Indyk emphasised that the Palestinian Authority must do everything it can to prevent terror attacks before the elections. One was left wondering why he was not pressing for PA vigilance at all times, and not just before an Israeli election.
Middle East special envoy Dennis Ross then blasted settlement activity as "very destructive" to peace, a formulation lacking much of the politeness of the Yitzhak Rabin era, when even greater levels of settlement expansion were deemed merely an "obstacle to peace."
This comes at a time when PA Chairman Yasser Arafat and his entourage have enjoyed unprecedented access to the Clinton White House. Top PA negotiators were just in Washington to prepare for a crucial Clinton/Arafat summit set for March 23rd. Now that Arafat has been deprived of the "annulled" Palestinian charter as a bargaining tool, discussions are centring on his newest bazaar item -- the threat of a unilateral declaration of statehood.
Citing May 4, 1999 (the original Oslo target for ending final status talks) as a sacred date, Arafat has made clear he is willing to delay the announcement for a price. According to most accounts, he will hold off until January 1, 2000 in exchange for guarantees that the US and European Union will recognise a Palestinian state when it is declared. Palestinians officials also are demanding a boost in ties and new levels of recognition as of May 4, regardless of any final PA decision on delay.
The May 4 deadline does pose a technical problem, aptly outlined by Oslo legal draftsman Joel Singer in a February 5th Jerusalem Post column. Although one component of Oslo commits both sides indefinitely to peaceful negotiations of all differences, PA institutions have only interim status and are set to expire at the end of the 5-year timetable. While this potential lapse could be easily resolved, the PA has chosen instead to stir international confusion over Oslo's time clock, circumvent its obligations and achieve statehood without Israel's necessary consent. Netanyahu's response has been a reciprocal threat to annex all territories still under Israel's control. (Query the US reaction if Israel demanded the corollary -- concessions for delaying unilateral annexation of Judea/Samaria?)
Recognising the explosiveness of such developments, both houses of the US Congress overwhelmingly approved resolutions urging Clinton to oppose any such Palestinian unilateral actions. The Senate resolution warned it would "introduce a dramatically destabilising element into the Middle East, risking Israeli countermeasures, a quick descent into violence and an end to the entire peace process."
Various Administration mouthpieces gave assurances that the official US position remained that a unilateral declaration "would be a mistake that would undermine the ability to negotiate a permanent status [settlement]."
But PA officials equally insist the US, like scores of other nations, has quietly accepted the principle of Palestinian independence and is prepared to grant recognition, but is pressing the PA to delay an announcement on May 4th. "The difference is over timing," summarized Hassan Abdul Rahim, the Palestinian envoy in Washington.
One would think the Clinton team placed a premium on zealously guarding its hard-won accomplishments since Oslo and its role as an honest broker of Israeli/Palestinian peace. This would require the US to extinguish at once even the slightest talk of a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood as a material abrogation of the letter and spirit of signed agreements. Instead, Washington has indulged Arafat, joining Egypt, Jordan, the European Union and others in urging delay of a declaration until after the Israeli elections on May 17 so as not to hurt the chances of its favoured candidates. So while Arafat's defiant rhetoric constitutes an anticipatory breach of the entire Oslo process, the US toys with Israeli voters.
One thing is certain: The Clintonites will not have to fret over interfering in a Palestinian election anytime soon.