Turning the Screws

Clinton Loses Patience With Israel

US President Bill Clinton, regarded by Israelis across the political spectrum as the most Israel-friendly president in history, is increasingly turning against the leader of the nation he promised never to betray.

November and December saw Clinton chastise, criticise, snub and slander Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, frustrated by the Israeli's unwillingness to risk enough of its security needs "for the sake of peace". His tactics included a transparent "inability" to meet Netanyahu, while feting the premier's political opponents and whispering anti-Netanyahu remarks in their ears.

Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had met on November 14 in London, where they reportedly had heated discussions over Clinton's refusal to see Netanyahu during his subsequent visit to America. Speaking in Oman two days later, Albright told Israel: "Time is running out. Middle East leaders cannot sit on the fence and wait for others to take the risks."

Netanyahu flew to the US, but no meeting with Clinton took place, even though both leaders were in Los Angeles on the same day. Later that week, Clinton met with Netanyahu's political rivals, Shimon Peres and Leah Rabin, to receive their 1997 "Man of Peace" award.

"I had a meeting with the President of the United States for more than an hour, but I won't tell you what he said to me about Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu," Peres said afterwards. He did say Clinton asserted that Netanyahu had promised a settlement freeze, and had broken his word. Israel denied any such promise had been made.

On November 22, Albright made it clear to Netanyahu that if he did not have a "positive and sufficient" answer regarding the extent of Israel's further redeployment by the beginning of December, "the US would make an announcement Israeli officials feared would be tough". (Yediot Ahronot, Nov 23)

The next day Ma'ariv quoted Clinton as saying Netanyahu's "stubbornness is hurting vital US interests in the region." Yediot reported on "how Clinton avoided Netanyahu again". After Netanyahu's office had pressed for a meeting, it said, the White House "searched for and found a date on which Netanyahu could not arrive, and 'proposed' to have the summit at that time".

Twenty-four hours later, newly-appointed Under Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Martin Indyk publicly confirmed that Clinton and Albright had lost patience with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu was informed that 1997 had been a bad year for peace, and that the US expected Israel to achieve something tangible by year's end. Simultaneously, the Americans let it be known that they supported the Palestinian position that a third Israeli withdrawal be carried out before the implementation of a permanent arrangement. On December 1, Israel got the "message" Albright had warned was coming. CNN reported a threat by the Clinton administration to make a major shift in foreign policy and publicly declare America's support for a Palestinian state, with the Jordan River as its eastern border.

The following day, Yediot revealed the contents of a "secret cable" informing Jerusalem of a US promise to Arafat: "Keep mum and we will pressure Israel to reach a decision that is acceptable to both of us [ie: the US and Arafat]."

As Israel's cabinet felt the squeeze, dovish Foreign Minister David Levy rounded on Transport Minister Yitzhak Levy, who suggested Israel stand up against the mounting pressure: "Don't hide your head in the sand," warned Levy. "We will soon be isolated in the international arena, and we must make the hard decisions now."

Meeting Netanyahu in Paris on December 5, Albright let it be known that the US was not planning to act as guarantor for all Arafat's Hebron-agreement commitments. Yediot reported that a "very impatient" Secretary had demanded at least a 10 to 12 per cent withdrawal from areas of Judea- Samaria. A US source told the newspaper senior administration officials had concluded that Netanyahu did not intend to carry out Israel's commitments under Oslo. Albright was about ready to call "Netanyahu's bluff", wrote the New York Times.

Thus did Clinton renege on his January 1997 promise to Israel that his governmentwould ensure the PA's compliance with its commitments as reaffirmed in the Hebron Protocol--none of which Arafat has kept. It was as a direct result of Clinton's undertaking that Israel agreed to give most of Hebron to the PA.

Increasing the pressure on December 8, Clinton officially reopened the PLO office in Washington - four months after it was closed by congressmen opposed to continued US support for the PA.

A flood of protests from American Jewish and Christian groups critical of Clinton's dealings with Netanyahu caused the State Department to announce that there would be no pressure applied when Netanyahu and Albright met again on December 18.

What Netanyahu was told at that meeting, however, was that while America "understood" Israel's security concerns, it still expected to hear something concrete from its prime minister by mid-January.

Observers say that while Clinton may paint his animus as anti-Netanyahu, he is in fact opposing the wishes of the majority of Israelis. In the most recent poll, 80 per cent expressed their total opposition to making further one-sided concessions like another withdrawal before the PA carried out its commitments.

Clinton is also strengthening the Arabs' hand. According to former Israeli Ambassador to the US, Zalman Shoval: "Experience shows that whenever there was a perception of American pressure on Israel, Arab attitudes in the peace process became more intransigent."

Although Clinton professes sincere support for Israel, it is becoming increasingly clear his friendship is contingent upon Israel's leaders going along with a process America believes will bring peace.

Between a rock and a hard place...

"[O]ne must take into account that Netanyahu, who by nature easily succumbs to pressures, has a very hard time. In his own Likud Party, most of the leaders are pro-Oslo - speak the language of Oslo. No more than a maximum of six MKs, including ministers, are still faithful to the original platform. Then there is the constant threat of Shas to topple his government if he stops making concessions to Arafat. The same goes for the Third Way. Then, he has all the media against him. In such a situation - who needs an "opposition"? How could even a Hercules withstand such pressures? Add to this more and more numerous demonstrations, the invective becoming more and more brutal, directed--always--only against him personally. It seems as if the American administration works hand in hand, in concerted action, with Peace Now, the Labour Party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Israeli media-- to put Netanyahu before a simple choice: Go along the Oslo path, or fall."
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