WHEN Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his cabinet debated the early March troop withdrawal from a further nine per cent of Judea-Samaria, the shadow of Washington hung heavily over proceedings.

Several times during the long debate, Netanyahu and at least three of his ministers left the meeting to consult the US ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, who in turn was reportedly in touch with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

The US wanted to ensure Israel made a substantial concession to the PLO Authority (PA), following several Israeli decisions which had angered the Arabs, the US, and the world community.

Once the withdrawal decision had been announced, the State Department quickly voiced its support for it but then added that it expected more extensive pullbacks in two further redeployments, scheduled to take place in six months' and one year's time respectively.

Israelis may be tempted to echo the words of premier Menachem Begin to a US diplomat in 1981: "Are we a vassal state? A banana republic? Are we 14-year-old boys that if they don't behave they have their knuckles smacked?"

Begin was responding to American government displeasure at Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights. His questions remain pertinent today, as Israel's leaders are cajoled, manipulated, even some would say bullied by the Clinton administration.

One might argue that the US has paid in financial aid for the right to interfere in Israel's domestic affairs. But successive US administrations have poured large amounts of money into many countries in the world, including Arab states. And the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem has not been one-sided. As the only free market democracy in the Middle East, Israel has long been America's most reliable friend in a bad neighbourhood. Defence and intelligence alliances have served both equally well.

No, America has not bought the right to interfere. And if President Bill Clinton isn't careful, he'll also find his administration no longer retains the status of "honest broker" it has enjoyed thus far. For in the past month, Washington has voiced its displeasure several times at decisions by Israel which do not in any way contravene the Oslo Accords. (In fact, in the case of Israel's demand that the PA shut its offices illegally operating in Jerusalem, US criticism of Israel was tantamount to encouraging the PA to violate the accords.)

While turning up the heat on Israel, the US has overlooked numerous violations by the Palestinian side. The US-drafted "Note for the Record" attached to the recent Hebron withdrawal agreement stipulated that further implementation of agreements between Israel and the Palestinians was to take place "on the basis of reciprocity".

Israel's obligations included that "the first phase of further redeployments will be carried out during the first week of March". Palestinian commitments to be "dealt with immediately and in parallel" included revision of the PLO Covenant, prevention of incitement, dismantling of terror groups' infrastructure and extradition of terror suspects.

Since the Hebron agreement was signed, however, PA representatives have:

Perhaps the most serious infringement relates to the Palestinian "police force", transformed from a small, lightly-armed policing body into a bloated, military force.

The US has issued no public condemnation of the PA's failure to meet these and other undertakings. Instead, Clinton and his officials have feted PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, ignoring the fact their honoured White House guest has been responsible for taking not just many Jewish lives, but also those of Americans (see Backgrounder: REMEMBER KHARTOUM).

Netanyahu has repeatedly praised the American president; he has called him a "true friend" of Israel. It's time for a reality check.


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