Perspective: TOUGH LOVE

US HOUSE SPEAKER Newt Gingrich weathered a rocky visit to Israel in late May as head of a 20-member congressional delegation here to honour Israel's Jubilee. Fending off Palestinian charges of bias and barbs from Clinton administration spokesmen, Gingrich displayed formidable diplomatic skills and refreshing acumen when questioning the State Department's recent handling of the Oslo process.

In the weeks prior to leaving for Israel, Gingrich emphasised Congress' broad support for moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and opposition to US pressure on Israel on the Oslo redeployment issue. At a Capitol Hill rally on May 19, Gingrich compared the admini-stration's approach on the peace process to an Israeli diplomat telling the US how to defend Texas, suggesting the problem may be that American diplomats have "been in fancy hotels too long and [are] out of touch with reality". (The Jerusalem Post, May 20)

Before leaving Washington, PA negotiator Saeb Erekat charged that Gingrich's plans to visit the proposed US embassy site would provoke "bloodshed". Gingrich removed the site from his official itinerary, but also barred any meetings with Erekat for his irresponsible threats.

Once in Jerusalem, a trans-Atlantic verbal war with the Clinton team erupted: State Department spokeman James Rubin suggested that in recent comments Gingrich had called Secretary of State Madelaine Albright "an agent of the Palestinians". White House spokesman Mich-ael McCurry joined in by labelling Gingrich's re-marks on Jerusalem "provocative", showing a lack of "pro-ficiency in diplomacy" (The Jerusalem Post, May 28). Gingrich responded to it all in good spirits, denying any personal disparaging of Albright and pointing out that his views on Jerusalem were totally consistent with a law passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton. He eventually held a cordial meeting in Ram'Allah with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat on May 27.

ACCORDING TO the Palestinian spin, Gingrich's "bias" arises purely from political considerations-votes and money. It is hard for them to accept the fact that Gingrich, or anyone in or outside the US Congress, can arrive at a principled pro-Israel position after a careful, objective, personal review of the historic record. The Georgia Republican is a former history professor who has exhibited an impressive capacity to comprehend complex issues, foreign and domestic. While his domestic musings have raised eyebrows from time to time, his views on the peace process are informed and responsible, and are shared by the majority of his colleagues in Congress. And he has few rivals when it comes to expounding on those views. When introducing the embassy relocation bill in 1995, Gingrich urged "tough love" in response to questions about the likely negative Arab reactions, saying: "The Arabs need to grow up."

Representative Peter Deutsch, a liberal Democrat in the Gingrich delegation, said that while Gingrich is not always a consensus figure in American politics, he had "across the board support from the delegates against pressure on Israel." He added that on Middle East issues, Gingrich is "an insightful and forceful speaker." (The Jerusalem Post, May 25). Likewise, delegation co-leader, House Minority Lead-er Richard Gephardt, also a liberal Democrat, said nothing at any time to distance himself from the views expressed by Gingrich.

In averting a public row with the PA, Gingrich sought to ad-vance the diplomatic process. But his current criticism of Clin-ton's handling of the redeploy-ment decision is com-pletely justified, because never has American Middle East policy been more devoid of guiding principles.

DURING THE early Oslo era, members of Congress dared not appear "more Zionist than the Israelis", even as the White House scrambled to take advan-tage of the concessionary leader-ship of Yit-zhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Clinton's policy, stated simply, was: "If Israel is willing to take risks, then we will help to minimise those risks." As it turns out, this hollow policy was based on per-son-alities, not principles. And Clinton's "poli-cy" during the Netanyahu era is a sea of threats, snubs and ultimatums.

In contrast, Israel's allies in Congress have solidified around the constructive, determined ef-forts of the Netanyahu govern-ment to work through the flaws in Oslo. Netanyahu seeks to lower Arab expectations, which inflated to unrealistic propor-tions following "the hand-shake". Netanyahu also knows that, in view of constant Arab threats, any pullback could quickly develop into the new con-front-ation lines for some time to come.

Gingrich rightly cautions that the US not become "a third party" in the negotiations, but rather continue its mediator role. But, Israel now must "satisfy" US demands, not just those of the PA. Thus it seems incredible to those reasonable men and wo-men in the halls of Congress, Republican and Democrat alike, that Israel must "satisfy Wash-ing-ton" on an issue --the scope of the interim redeploy-ments-which Clinton officials just last year (in the Note for the Record attached to the Hebron Agreement) assured Netanyahu was a matter for Israel alone to decide.

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