(May 15) - Realizing that last week's perceived ultimatum to Israel by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright might backfire, the administration has spent this week trying to soft-pedal its position, Jewish leaders tell in Washington.
AIPAC director Howard Kohr warned two months ago that the route the administration was charting to break the peace process stalemate would fail and lead to a clash with Israel.
Recent events, he says now, have proved to be "exactly the predictable course" Kohr feared then, when he told a United Jewish Appeal forum that the US's "promulgating a so-called American plan and then using pressure tactics to try to coerce Israel into accepting it" is an oft-tried formula that "has never worked."
"Our number-one message is that pressure does not work, and that the [best] way to achieve progress in the peace process is to work with Israel," says Kohr. "We still believe that working with Israel works, and we need to get back to the basics."
The fraying of American-Israeli understandings on the peace process has brought with it predictable divisions between Jewish groups and the administration, and between Congress and the executive branch.
Those differences reached a head on the eve of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's arrival for what is an Israeli prime minister's annual spring ritual: addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbying group.
The visit instead shaped up as one dominated by the diplomatic showdown that climaxed last week, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright conditioned her invitation to a summit on Israel's acceptance of American terms for a further redeployment in the territories.
Appearances notwithstanding, not everyone agrees that US- Israeli relations are in a crisis - or even that what Albright had said constituted an ultimatum.
Tom Smerling of the left-wing Israel Policy Forum, for instance, pointed out that it was not an ultimatum because no penalty was threatened.
But something resembling a crisis is evident. Many in Congress and among the leadership of Jewish organizations are concerned about the ominous consequences of an ugly fight between Washington and Jerusalem, and about the administration provoking Netanyahu into digging in his heels further, if only to demonstrate that he - and Israel - will not be dictated to.
The crisis of confidence centers on the message the American-Israeli rift reflects back to a region that relishes the clash. It also rests on the precedent this sets - of America seeking to "deliver" Israel.
Furthermore, for some, it sets on shaky ground what the late premier Yitzhak Rabin (and presumably Netanyahu, too) saw as a bedrock of the Oslo process - that heading into final-status negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel must believe that it and Washington are synchronized, and that American support is assured.
"If you're at a bar and say to the person next to you, 'Let's step outside [and fight],' you've set something in motion. There are people outside egging you on," an AIPAC official said.
SOME JEWISH organizational heads believe that the administration this week recognized it had miscalculated, and stepped back from the precipice. They say this accounts for US President Bill Clinton's deciding Monday that although that day's scheduled White House summit with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat had been cancelled, he would have Albright meet with Netanyahu in Washington - which they did, on Wednesday and again yesterday.
The Jewish officials were also calmed somewhat by Albright's invitation to meet with her at the State Department on Tuesday, followed by her speech to the National Press Club, in which she reassured Israel that while the US can't wait forever, the bilateral ties would remain solid regardless of what happens in the peace process.
Albright's heading afterwards to Capitol Hill for separate briefings on the peace process with representatives and senators illustrates her sensitivity to Congress's concerns, too.
"I think the fact of [Tuesday's] press conference was as significant as its substance: a) It was on the eve of the arrival of the prime minister, and b) the secretary of state is not in the habit of coming to the press to explain, defend and rationalize American foreign policy," said Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman, who participated in the meeting with Albright.
"I think they were stung by the criticism. I think they felt a need to stand up and respond, which she did.... We are reassured that they heard the message. What [this response] said is, 'We're listening.'"
Foxman said the administration's courting of the Jewish community, and Clinton's decision to hold the Netanyahu-Albright meeting despite Netanyahu's spurning the US's deadline, was a recognition by the administration that it had "stepped over the line."
"It's as much of a rollback as - with dignity and saving face - one can do," Foxman said. "It was a defense and a preemptive strike... so that the prime minister, when he comes here, has less of a punching bag."
LAST WEEK, House Speaker Newt Gingrich did some boxing of his own, accusing the administration of bullying Israel on Arafat's behalf. Those statements, and other recent letters from members of Congress critical of Clinton, led to accusations by some in the administration that Congress is pandering to American Jewry and engaging in partisanship.
Asked by The Jerusalem Post about the inevitable backlash to his comments, Gingrich appeared taken aback.
"Why would you demean the legitimately democratic government of Israel and the legitimately democratic Congress of the US having honest, open positions by suggesting anything except that reasonable people [realize] that since the Oslo agreement... [the Palestinians] haven't done any of the things they're supposed to have done, and yet the Clinton administration continues to be pro-Arafat, continues to prop up the Palestinian position, and has now moved in a public way to deliver a public ultimatum [to Israel]," Gingrich said.
"Now, that is precisely the opposite of what was promised, [which] was that the US would convene meetings at which the two parties would negotiate. Now it's become the Clinton administration and Arafat against Israel. And I would just suggest to you that we were as firm when it was a Labor government in Israel as we are when it's a Likud government....
"I think we are taking a legitimate position, not on behalf of Netanyahu any more than earlier, when I worked closely with prime minister Rabin, or before that when we worked with the previous Likud government. Our position is one of trying to work with the freely elected government of Israel."
In a month marked by a series of Congressional letters to Clinton - highlighted by one signed by 81 Senators urging him not to pressure Israel by going public with an American plan for breaking the deadlock - Gingrich's letter was the most abrasive.
In an interview Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota called Gingrich's statements "a demagogic accusation" and said he doesn't consider Albright's conditions for the summit an ultimatum.
"In the Bush administration there was the threat to cut off [funds for the $10 billion loan guarantees]," said Wellstone. "I don't see any such threat.
"Part of the role of a mediator is you lay out ideas. The parties make the decisions whether to accept it."
According to Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat who attended Albright's closed briefing for an audience he described as half the Senate, talk of a rift between the two countries is "exaggerated."
"Any time a friend tries to help a friend finish a conflict, it's not easy to do," Kerrey said.
"Although [special Middle East coordinator] Dennis Ross and Madeleine Albright have attempted to play the role of honest broker, now we're forced to defend ourselves that we didn't lay an ultimatum on the table.
"I don't think it's an ultimatum. What I take it as is that our effort to intervene hasn't yet succeeded, and may yet fail."
Kerrey said that in signing onto the letter last month, "I didn't intend to be critical of the administration's efforts. I just don't think we should break neutrality [and] I don't think this administration has done that."
ON THE other hand, Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat, said he had initially refrained from signing the House's letter to Clinton when it was circulated last month, but changed his mind last week after Albright's statements setting the terms for the Washington summit.
"It was only the events of London that had me sign the letter. It was the public pinpointing of our close ally for not accepting something that we'd previously said was their decision to make," Berman said, of the disagreement over the extent of Israel's redeployment.
"Not that I don't want to see it move forward; not that I'm opposed to pressure. But the fear was it wouldn't get the result intended. And, second, that it could leave in its wake the impression that Israel was at fault, all the evidence of noncompliance on the other side notwithstanding."
Late last week, Berman spoke with Vice President Al Gore and sensed that the administration was "backing away" from its tough line while not abandoning the peace process.
"What I thought was an ultimatum turned out not to be," Berman added. "I think the president is a great friend of Israel. I want this government of Israel to abide by the Oslo accords. [But] I didn't like that particular tactic - the appearance of a public ultimatum being given to one side."
Wellstone said that Albright was received respectfully at Tuesday's briefing, although senators expressed their concerns about the pressure she brought to bear on Israel.
Albright repeated "over and over again" that Washington's intention was not to coerce Israel but to break the peace process stalemate, Wellstone said, adding that Albright also reiterated that the US commitment to Israel "will always be there."
What is certain to remain consistent is Capitol Hill's support for Israel, particularly that of a Republican Congress for a free-market Likud premier. A prime minister's visit to both houses may be perfunctory and smart politics, but they could not have been better timed than Netanyahu's half-day visit scheduled for yesterday.
ON THE most serious breach between the two countries since the advent of the peace process, a senior administration official said the topic is too sensitive to comment on, that "there have been too many quotes from so-called senior administration officials" on the subject.
He was less reserved, however, when addressing Congress's opposition to the administration's policies now.
"It shouldn't be a partisan issue manipulated for partisan reasons," the official said. "Domestic politics shouldn't enter into an issue such as this."
Asked whether Congress's letters and rhetoric attacking Clinton make the peace team's lives more difficult, the official said: "It doesn't make them easier.
"We're crossing the line between things that have nothing to do with foreign affairs and even less to do with Israel - and everything to do with domestic politics."
© The Jerusalem Post