With Washington and Jerusalem reeling from internal political crises, the Mideast peace process is likely to be the first casualty. Neither President Clinton, facing an impeachment trial in the Senate, nor Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was forced to call for new elections this week, appear to have the focus, or clout, to address the stymied Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Indeed, in both capitals, critical foreign policy goals have been elbowed aside by the partisan warriors. “We’re in a period of tremendous uncertainty in both countries,” said Martin Raffel, director of the Israel Task Force of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “That’s bound to have an impact on the peace process, as well as other areas of foreign policy.”
A leading pro-Israel activist put it in starker terms.
scary is that we’re seeing a lack of leadership in Israel and in the United States and a complete unwillingness to put partisanship aside and deal with the serious problems both face. And it’s happening at a very unforgiving time, when events around the world seem to be going critical at once.”
In Washington, the impeachment process, which has already left deep partisan scars that may gridlock the 106th Congress, could drag on until late summer, with incalculable effects on the nation’s foreign policy.
The relentless impeachment effort, critics say, relegated last week’s military action against Iraq to the status of a sideshow.
In Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were officially put on hold by the cabinet as Netanyahu faced the prospect of new elections in a bitterly divided country.
Administration officials are disturbed by the political paralysis they see in Jerusalem — but they are hardly in a position to complain, given the president’s own all-out battle for survival.
“They’re both in political trouble, although the causes are different,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League. “That kind of political uncertainty is bound to have important policy ramifications.”
Political turmoil in both countries threatens the ability of top leaders to craft and implement far-sighted policies to meet the challenges of a new century, some Jewish leaders worry. In both, rancorous partisanship and the growing power of extremist factions jeopardizes the moderate center on which sound foreign policy must be based.
In Washington, the political breakdown was particularly evident in the reactions of Republican leaders who claimed the Iraq bombing was just another ploy to get Clinton out of a jam — the same Republicans, in some cases, who blasted Clinton in November for calling off a planned attack at the last minute.
Traditionally, the opposition lines up behind a chief executive when troops are sent into battle. But by last week, the effort to unseat Clinton had become all-consuming. The latest flare-up with Iraq was just one more variable that politicians could use to fan the impeachment fires.
The harsh attacks from some GOP leaders may have contributed to the striking lack of international support for the American and British effort, especially in the Arab world —where Clinton was riding high just a few weeks ago after his precedent setting trip to Gaza and the West Bank.
Clinton’s tenuous hold on his office may also have contributed to the mission’s modest goals. The president, sources here say, felt that Saddam left him no choice but to respond with a quick military strike — but also that uncertain support in Congress necessitated a cautious, low-risk policy.
The results of the air strikes, not surprisingly, were limited.
Saddam is still in power, still holding on to his precious chemical and biological stockpiles. His standing in the Arab world seems to have grown, and now he won’t have to put up with intrusive UN weapons inspectors.
The growing risk posed by Saddam Hussein cries out for bold, creative new strategies. But the scorched-earth tactics of Clinton’s congressional critics will leave little room for the kind of bipartisan consensus that new and creative policies will require.
“It’s hard to picture how this Congress and this administration can find common ground on anything,” said an official with a major pro-Israel group here. “Given the supercharged partisan atmosphere, it’s hard to see how we’re going to respond effectively on a number of issues — Iraq, Iran, the Middle East talks. And don’t forget the Russia crisis. If nothing else scares you, that one should.”
In Israel, the political and policy calculus is different, but the bottom line is similar: instability jeopardizes important policy initiatives, damages relations with allies, encourages enemies and erodes the confidence of allies. Just before joining the call for new elections on Monday, when he concluded that his coalition could not stand, Netanyahu said that he would suspend the Wye Plantation agreement until the Palestinians comply with pledges, including preventing violence against Israelis and renouncing intentions to declare a state in May.
The Palestinians say they met their conditions and expect the government of Israel to honor its obligations.
In his Knesset address, which was in effect the start of the election campaign, Netanyahu insisted that he lived up to his 1996 campaign promise of pursuing peace while protecting Israeli security. The fact that 80 percent of the public favors implementing the Wye accord may indicate that Israelis support Netanyahu’s policies — they just don’t trust him.
His efforts to carry out the Oslo process while appeasing his right-wing coalition broke down in the aftermath of Wye, signed two months ago amid great fanfare.
The U.S. wants very much to see the peace process go forward and no doubt would like to see Netanyahu replaced. But its heavy-handed support of Labor’s Shimon Peres two years ago may have contributed to a pro-Netanyahu backlash, so Washington probably will sit back for this election.
In private, administration officials accept the fact that Netanyahu faces huge political obstacles to implementing the Wye agreement. But they also increasingly believe some of his political woes are a result of his insistence on seeing the peace process as a problem in pure politics, not as a strategic crossroads for the country. They also believe political uncertainty in Jerusalem has been a factor in Yasir Arafat’s pattern of compliance with his agreements as the Palestinian leader seeks to exploit Netanyahu’s weakness.
Israelis will be able to choose between Netanyahu and Labor’s Ehud Barak, as well as a growing number of center, right, and center-right politicians, in the spring election.
In the meantime, though, most observers expect the freeze in the peace process will lead to new Palestinian violence.
“The political dynamic in Israel is moving in uncharted directions,” said the ADL’s Jess Hordes. “You have more political uncertainty than you’ve had in a long time.” That uncertainty, he said, is not conducive to efforts to find new routes around the Israeli-Palestinian roadblock.
Monday’s decision by the Knesset to move toward early elections offers at least a possibility of clarifying the political muddle in the next six months, a possibility that seems out of reach in Washington. “People on all sides of the debate in Israel are looking forward to this, hoping it will provide some clarity and some strategic direction,” said Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Israeli political environment may give birth to a new centrist alignment that may ultimately craft bold new policies for the new century. In Washington, all signs suggest that the partisan conflagration will probably rage unabated until voters express their frustration at the polls.