A Welcome Change of Tune

In an article in Egypt's mass-circulation al-Ahram newspaper, writer Ibrahim Nafi noted on October 23 that a recent US poll had found, for the first time, that the majority of American Jews would support Washington's pressuring Israel into moving the Oslo process ahead. This apparent sea change in Diaspora thinking has been attributed in part to the anger among Reform and Conservative Jews, fuelled by the controversial "Conversion Bill" due to go before the Knesset early next year.

For the longest time US policy in the Middle East has been mired in a particular mind set, even though events in the region clearly require a fresh approach. Now, at last, there are signs of change. Indications of a shift in attitude have been rumbling below the surface for about four years now. Only in the past three months, however, has it been possible to consider an option once anathema to US policy makers--how best to exert pressure on the Israeli government before it destroys all hopes of peace.

Such a course can now be contemplated because of a shift in the attitudes of the American Jewish community. There now exists a substantial body of opinion urging the US administration to exert pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in order to rescue the peace process and to safeguard US interests in the Middle East.

This emerging trend comes after a period of sharp divisions inside the American Jewish community. To many Jewish leaders and organisations the notion of pressuring Israel was sufficiently taboo that, even when the Arabs urged the US to act as an honest broker and ensure that Israel adhered to the fundamental principles of the peace process, their requests were met with one reply. "We will not pressure Israel."

The problem of applying pressure on Israel came to a head with Madeleine Albright's visit to the Middle East. The Palestinians and Israelis, she announced, would have to make some very difficult decisions if the peace process is to move forward again. And many American Jews began to realise that Albright's solution was not as simple as it appeared. They realised that if the US is to act as an impartial mediator in the peace process, domestic political considerations must not be allowed to hamper the administration's manoeuvrability. And they were suddenly faced with the difficult question: Is it not up to us to reassure the administration that there will be no political repercussions from the American Jewish community should Washington decide to pressure Netanyahu into refraining from actions that threaten the very existence of the peace process? The Democrats could use such assurances. Clinton had commanded 80 per cent of the Jewish vote in his two presidential campaigns. With Vice President Al Gore as the likely Democratic candidate for the year 2000, the Clinton administration is loath to take any actions that might alienate such support.

Many American Jews have begun to fear that history will hold them responsible for obstructing the measures necessary to secure a lasting peace. And increasingly they have come to realise that the only solution to the current deadlock between the Israelis and the Palestinians lies in two mutually contingent processes. The Palestinian Authority must act decisively to counter-act terrorism and the Israeli government must cease settlement building, implement the provisions of agreements already signed, and refrain from further provocations inimical to the spirit of peace. Events over the past three months have exacerbated divisions inside the US Jewish community and gradually brought the shifting trends to the surface. On 10 September, Albright received a letter from American Jewish leaders asking her to urge Arafat to respond to Netanyahu's demands to fight terrorism. At the same time, they asked her to adhere to her promise to revive the peace process.

Albright's visit proceeded much as expected. Yet, while Arafat responded to the call to combat terrorism, Netanyahu refused to countenance any halt to settlement building, a condition which even American Jewish organisations view as essential.

In the face of Netanyahu's blatant challenge to US policy, American Jews found themselves forced to clarify their position. The majority of the Jewish community recognise the Oslo Accords as the most viable framework for realising Israel's demands for security. Prominent Jewish figures began to openly criticise Netanyahu's policies and accuse him of jeopardising not just peace but the future of Israel.

Further evidence of this shift in American Jewish attitudes appeared in a recent opinion poll. When asked whether the US administration should exert pressure on both Netanyahu and Arafat, 84 per cent of those polled said yes. When asked whether the US administration should pressure Netanyahu (leaving Arafat's name out) 62 per cent of those polled replied positively.

For the first time American Jews are appealing to the administration to exert pressure on Israel. This development dramatically alters the framework within which US policy is made.

Some observers in Washington interpret it as a green light to President Clinton to take the necessary measures to compel Netanyahu to respect the fundamental principles of the peace process. Others, however, continue to believe that electoral considerations limit Clinton's ability to temper Netanyahu's challenge to the international community's desire for peace. Yet whatever course the US administration takes, one thing is certain: the difficult decisions necessary to rescue the peace process can only be made in Washington.

(Cairo al-Ahram weekly, October 23-29 1997; courtesy Israeli & Global News)

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