Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s Mideast trip, scheduled for next week, isn’t shaping up the way administration officials had hoped. And the rumbles of discontent in Washington, along with the implied threat that she could cancel the visit entirely, may have played a part in this week’s sudden flurry of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy.
The State Department is making it clear that despite Palestinian demands for more direct U.S. intervention, Albright will be mostly assessing the status of Israeli-Palestinian talks, not serving as an intermediary.
“I wouldn’t read this trip as having a specific goal, or agenda, in the sense that the secretary would involve herself in the kinds of negotiations that the parties themselves are undertaking right now,” deputy State Department spokesman James Foley said on Monday.
“She’ll be going there to take stock, to try to encourage the peace process to go forward.”
Albright was expected to give that message to top Palestinian negotiators who were due in town late this week to press for a more direct American role in breaking through the Wye impasse — a role that the administration rejected even before their arrival.
“The Palestinians have been trying to create an atmosphere of crisis in advance of the trip, and they are using some theatrics to create the impression that the administration is very involved in a way it is not,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Foxman met with Albright last week. He said that contrary to statements by Arab-American groups, the administration has not resumed its role as “partner” in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations rather than “facilitator.”
Administration officials agree that Arafat was playing the brinkmanship game to force Albright into more direct intervention. The fact that officials here were resisting that pressure, they say, may have spurred this week’s diplomatic developments, including the “safe passage” agreement and the agreement that will allow construction of a Palestinian seaport to begin in October.
Administration officials said this week that the Syrian track, originally expected to be the centerpiece of Albright’s visit, has been put on the back burner because of disappointing signals from Damascus.
“The bloom is off the rose on the Syria-Israel bilaterals,” said Mark Rosenblum, political director for Americans for Peace Now. “There were some misplaced expectations. In fact, there is no formula for resuming negotiations, and [Albright] has adjusted her travel schedule to reflect that.”
Wye Battle Over Money, Not Policy
Big tax cuts aren’t the only budget-related issue lawmakers will grapple with when they return next month.
Jewish groups are particularly interested in the upcoming negotiations over the supplemental aid package for Israel and Palestinians promised by President Bill Clinton as part of last year’s Wye River agreement.
Last month Congress passed a foreign aid bill containing Israel’s $2.8 billion in regular aid. As expected, lawmakers decided to hold off on the extra Wye package until September.
Contrary to statements by right-of-center Jewish groups, that decision was a function of domestic budget politics, not a slap at the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
The problem? Republican leaders, who have already slashed the overall foreign aid budget to levels that could produce a presidential veto, are insisting that any additional money be “offset” by cuts in other programs.
“The issue is 99 percent budgetary,” said an administration source. “Most members support the purposes of the funds, but the budget process is a mess, and it’s going to be hard to get past the fact that there are stringent budget caps that make it very hard to come up with the extra money.”
Still, this source said, at least some of the money is likely to be appropriated when the pro-Israel lobby begins cranking up the pressure — and when lawmakers begin seeing progress in the implementation of the Wye agreement.
Congressional sources say that all or part of the extra aid could be offered in an emergency supplemental appropriation or added to the foreign aid bill when it goes to a House-Senate conference committee.
Washington has pledged $1.2 billion to Israel, $400 million to the Palestinians and $300 million to Jordan.
Congress Adjourns — To Jerusalem
Capitol Hill has taken on its customary late summer lassitude – and one reason may be that an unusually high proportion of lawmakers are enjoying jaunts to the Jewish State at the invitation of pro-Israel groups.
At least three delegations put Jerusalem on their summer itineraries. Former Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) traveled to Jerusalem with a small group sponsored by Aish HaTorah group. Also aboard was Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.).
The American Israel Education Foundation, an arm of the pro-Israel lobby, took a record 31 House members to Israel last week — 11 Republicans and 20 Democrats, headed by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), members of their parties’ leadership teams.
Barak’s message to the lawmakers was that “he needs them to be partners in the peace process,” said Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Barak also met twice with top AIPAC leaders. That represented another step toward reconciliation with the pro-Israel group — which some Labor leaders had charged with being insufficiently supportive of the peace process.
“He made it very clear that he is serious about moving forward on both tracks of the peace process – and that AIPAC and the Jewish community here are important to achieving that,” Kohr said.
Israeli sources confirm that the AIPAC meetings were amicable and productive.
Also, the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange brought a number of first-time congressional visitors to Israel, including Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), Rep. Karen McCarthy (D-Mo.) and Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.). In several meetings, Barak continued to walk a fine line with lawmakers over the congressional push to force the administration to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Contrary to some reports, Barak did not explicitly ask the visiting legislators to hold off on new Jerusalem legislation.
But he sent unmistakable signals that he was worried about the impact of an immediate move on the intensifying negotiations with the Palestinians, several sources said.
Barak told the AJC delegation that “Jerusalem should be kept undivided and our capital forever,” but added his hope that final status negotiations could produce “some creative ideas [on Jerusalem] … that will not compromise our positions in any way.”
Other Capitol Hill sources say Barak offered lawmakers an unusually pessimistic assessment of his efforts to convince Moscow to curb the sale of dangerous technologies to Iran and other Middle Eastern nations —and some ominous words about growing European pressure to lift sanctions on Iraq.
Holocaust Museum Responds To Critical Report
Leaders of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington say they are already implementing many of the recommendations contained in last week’s critical report by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA).
The congressionally mandated report, while lambasting the Museum’s lay board for meddling in day-to-day operations of the Museum and spotlighting a number of managerial weaknesses, praised the new Museum director, Sara Bloomfield, for beginning to address longstanding complaints.
Bloomfield has already overhauled performance appraisals for employees, and hired an internal auditor to evaluate both the performance and the financial efficiency of every department.
Observers also point to a number of high-level officials who have left since Bloomfield’s arrival as evidence of tighter management procedures.
Miles Lerman, chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council — the board that oversees the Museum — said that a special governance committee has been meeting since late last year to clarify the Council’s operation and function.
“The Council’s committee has addressed 80 or 90 percent of the issues the NAPA report raises,” he said. “They will be ready to bring their recommendations to the Council at the next meeting.”
Lerman insisted that Council micromanagement was necessitated by poor management in the past – but said that Bloomfield, who was appointed early this year, has instituted changes that allow the Council to revert to a more general role.
But some Museum insiders dispute that claim.
“These are people who are very committed to the Museum and very convinced they know best how to do everything,” said one. “The members of the executive committee are having a hard time letting go. There’s not as much conflict as there used to be, but there’s still a lot of day-to-day involvement.”
The NAPA report could be a wild card when Congress begins working on the Museum’s reauthorization later this year or early next. There are reports Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chair of the Interior Appropriations subcommittee and the lawmaker who requested the NAPA study, will incorporate some of its recommendations into the authorization bill.
Hearings on the reauthorization measure could provide a new and highly visible platform for critics.
Council members this week downplayed warnings that the NAPA recommendations, if implemented, would result in a “quota” to limit the number of Jews on the Council and increase participation by other minorities.
“The report said that minorities are not sufficiently represented on the Council,” said Menachem Rosensaft, a member of the Executive Committee. “The problem is that this is not an issue for the Museum in terms of governance. Appointments are the prerogative of the president.”
In the past, he said, appointees have “understood the unique Jewish quality of the Holocaust. That element in the Museum has been promoted and preserved by all members of the Council —Jewish and non-Jewish.”
But Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Council member, warned that the report, if implemented, would diminish the Jewish character of the Museum.
“The standards they used may apply to the Smithsonian, but they do not necessarily apply here. Not only is the Holocaust unique, but this institution is unique, and making it conform to the standards for other institutions means it will no longer be what it is today.”