The Clinton administration is pulling out all the stops this week to provide Prime Minister Ehud Barak with a warm Washington welcome intended to signal a new and more congenial bilateral atmosphere.
Barak, while pleased with the symbolic thaw, has some hard-edged items on his agenda — including his desire to preempt the Israeli politicians who are already working Congress to stir up an anti-Barak, anti-administration backwash.
“He’s right to be concerned,” said an administration official, who pointed to an effective lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill by top Likud operatives against the policies of the Rabin and Peres governments. “His job is to build up the middle ground in Congress that generally supports the peace process and the American role, but is intimidated when Israeli and U.S.
The JewishWeek.com on Facebook
opposition forces come and tell them their support places them outside the pro-Israel tent.”
With hopes soaring for new talks with Syria, congressional sources say Likud supporters are already campaigning against U.S. peacekeepers on the Golan Heights — a likely element in any deal with Damascus.
Jewish leaders expressed the hope that Barak would use the visit to heal bitter divisions among American Jews over the peace process. Israeli officials say he hopes to do that — but that he will also take a tough line against efforts to use American politics to affect Israeli policy.
The state visit was expected to open on an intimate note with a helicopter ride to the Camp David presidential retreat with President Bill Clinton on Thursday, followed by a private dinner.
Barak will don his defense ministry hat on Friday, paying a call on Defense Secretary William Cohen, laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery and discussing ways to expand strategic ties.
He will spend the weekend in New York, meeting with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the press.
On Sunday night he will return to Washington for a White House dinner. On Monday Barak goes to the Oval Office for another meeting with the president, followed by a press conference.
Administration officials stress that Barak will get an extraordinary amount of “face time” with Clinton, and that the president is prepared to go along with the prime minister’s insistence on a less direct American role in the revived talks — although over the weekend Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is expected to begin a round of shuttle diplomacy in the region in early August, told an Arabic newspaper that the peace process “is not open-ended.”
Barak will end his visit with a round of Capitol Hill meetings on Tuesday.
Positive Poll Welcomes Barak
A pro-peace process group offered a different kind of welcome for Barak. On Wednesday Israel Policy Forum (IPF), a group built around support for the peace process, released the results of a new poll indicating that a strong majority of American Jews were “relieved” by his election in May.
According to the new survey, conducted by pollsters Ken Goldstein and Mark Mellman — a Republican and a Democrat — an overwhelming majority of American Jews support the peace process.
In response to another question, 52 percent supported President Clinton’s decision to invoke a waiver short-circuiting congressionally mandated sanctions for his failure to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
But the survey also indicated that only 36 percent are willing to compromise the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s indivisible capital.
A substantial majority — 70 percent — had an unfavorable view of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. Respondents were almost evenly divided on the question of U.S. peacekeeping troops on the Golan Heights, with 46 percent favoring, 44 opposing.
Clinton Backs Off On Refugees
President Bill Clinton, stung by Jewish groups for his recent expression of sympathy for Palestinian refugees and his view that they should be able to “live wherever they like, wherever they want to live,” has edged away from his bombshell statement still further.
But his “clarification” wasn’t enough to put the refugee genie back in the bottle, according to a top Jewish leader.
The non-retraction retraction came in a “Dear Malcolm” letter to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in response to the group’s protest of his July 1 comments at a press conference with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
In the letter, dated July 5 but not released to the public, Clinton said that “there has been no change in U.S. policy on the matter. … The issue of Palestinian refugees must be dealt with and resolved by the parties themselves.”
That, he said, reflects the longstanding U.S. view that final-status issues — including refugees — are “to be negotiated by Israelis and Palestinians, without prejudgment by any outside party.”
Hoenlein, asked if the group was satisfied, said only that “we welcome his statement.” But he added that Palestinian expectations, raised by the impression that U.S. policy was shifting, are unlikely to be dampened by the letter.
Muslim Appointee Axed
Arab-American and Muslim groups are protesting last week’s decision by House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) abandoning the nomination of a prominent Muslim leader to a special government commission on terrorism.
Jewish leaders are standing by their opposition to the appointment of Salam Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), although several conceded that it was based less on what Marayati said than on what he refused to say.
After fierce opposition by the Zionists Organization of America (ZOA), which dubbed Marayati an “extremist,” and expressions of concern from a number of other Jewish groups, Gephardt effectively killed the nomination by agreeing not to act on it — claiming that there wasn’t enough time to acquire the necessary security clearances for Marayati to participate in the panel, scheduled to work for only six months.
This week a coalition of Arab-American and Muslim groups called on Gephardt restore the appointment, and accused Jewish groups of “a campaign to silence Americans critical of Israel and exclude Muslim voices from the public arena.”
The groups blamed the failed nomination on “McCarthyite tactics applied by extremists,” and said that Jewish groups are imposing a pro-Israel “litmus test” on government appointees.
Jewish leaders insisted their opposition was based only on Marayati’s unwillingness to explicitly condemn Hamas and Hezbollah terrorism. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, conceded that there was no “smoking gun” linking Marayati to support for terrorist groups, but said that “you will not find a clear statement condemning any act of Mideast terror. If this is a panel to fight terrorism, than how can you do with someone who hasn’t found his way to condemn it?”
Asked if any Arab-American leader meets the Jewish community’s standards on condemning terrorism, he admitted few did.
“There aren’t too many who will do this,” he said. “And that’s part of the problem; they continue to rationalize and defend terrorism even when they say they’re condemning it.”