The throngs were still cheering the marching bands and flag-waving yeshiva children snaking up Fifth Avenue last Sunday at the Israel Day Parade. But at the ornate Essex Hotel on Central Park South, just blocks from the reviewing stand where he had hailed the crowd two hours earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed for just a moment uncharacteristically reticent.
Why, he was asked in a private meeting with top Jewish leaders, don’t you just deal with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat directly, given the terrible difficulties you say the Clinton administration’s recent role has caused you?
“First, I’d like to see if this works,” Netanyahu finally insisted.
Despite all the trappings of confrontation that accompanied his trip to Washington last week, Israel’s leader says his country’s effort continuesfor an accord with the administration on its bridging proposals for reaching final-status talks with the Palestinians on the fate of the West Bank.
But Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, who posed the question, has already reached a firm view of his own.
“A time-out should be called in terms of active U.S. participation,” said Foxman.
“I don’t think the U.S. can permanently opt out,” Foxman hastened to add. “But this process has got to be put back on track. And that track is to have the parties engage each other, to develop sweat equity, so it becomes theirs.”
In the wake of Netanyahu’s forceful rejection of U.S. bridging proposals last week, and the administration’s continued insistence that those proposals stand unchanged, just what comes next in the long-stalled peace process seems up in the air. But from disparate corners of the Jewish ideological map — and for disparate, if not clashing reasons — various leaders can be heard echoing variations on Foxman’s call.
From the right, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, is blunt in calling for a permanent U.S. withdrawal.
“Because they’ve shown themselves to be biased to the Arab side, I think America has lost its credibility to present ideas to the parties in a fair and unbiased way,” said Klein. “So no, I don’t think America should be involved. … Israel and Yasir Arafat should make those decisions on their own.”
On the left, Mark Rosenblum, political director of Americans for Peace Now, opined, “Right now, what Netanyahu must consider is that the administration continues to leave out their bridging proposals to which Arafat has said yes and Bibi has said no. If the administration walks away now, it will be very transparent who is responsible.
“I don’t think Netanyahu sees his best interest in this,” said Rosenblum. “What he’s projected as his favored approach is a protracted negotiation for which he is not held responsible. That’s not where an American exit would leave him.”
To be sure, an apparent majority of Jewish leaders still strongly back continued active U.S. mediation. Melvin Salberg, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the organized community’s umbrella group for Israel-related issues, reflected that view.
“I believe the Americans are playing an important role,” Salberg told The Jewish Week. “There might have been some misjudgements [by] the administration. But in terms of the importance of the role the U.S. must play — that’s ongoing.”
The administration first came in as a mediator between the Israel and the Palestinians early last year, at their request, after direct talks between them based on the Oslo Accords had broken down in mutual distrust. In the latest phase, after shuttling between them for many months to narrow their differences, the administration proposed a package of bridging proposals as conditions for jump-starting talks on the final status of the West Bank that Netanyahu had long sought.
Arafat accepted the package, which included a number of significant concessions on his part. Among other things, he agreed to accept a U.S. monitoring role over the Palestinians’ compliance with its obligation to fight terrorism under the Oslo Accords.
But Netanyahu rejected a U.S. condition that it cede 13 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian administration for the second of three redeployments it must make under Oslo, saying that to do so would endanger Israel’s security.
After rejecting Netanyahu’s reported maximum offer of 11 percent and a commitment to cancel the third redeployment, the administration set a deadline of May 11 for the Israeli leader to come to Washington for final status talks to be convened by President Clinton.
Netanyahu’s success in getting the administration to back down on this deadline with support from American Jewish groups who condemned the tactic as unacceptable pressure has nevertheless not moved the administration to alter its proposals.
Now, no one among those advocating continued U.S. efforts could say what turn they should now take.
“I don’t know that anyone has the answer,” said David Harris, executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee, who nevertheless said the administration should stay active.
At its policy conference last week, the other major pro-Israel force on the political scene, the Washington-based American Israel Public Affairs Committee, seemed to call for a sharp reduction in the U.S. role.
At that conference, the pro-Israel lobby’s executive committee voted to delete language in its annual policy statement endorsing “the continuation of energetic American efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East through a close working relationship between the United States and Israel.” (See story on page 9.)
Indeed, whatever American Jews or even Netanyahu may now want, Israeli diplomats who must devise their strategies for the coming months have adopted American diplomatic withdrawal as their operating assumption.
“The expectation is the administration will disengage without outright saying so,” said one such Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They’ll do what they can to keep the Palestinian pot from boiling over, but I don’t see any serious diplomacy.”
Foxman and others notwithstanding, that prospect worries some of the centrists among the Jewish leaders.
At the mayor’s breakfast for Netanyahu Sunday morning, one of them, the head of a major Jewish organization, said one consequence could well be a “withering away” of support among rank-and-file Jews who support the Oslo peace process. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he questioned Netanyahu’s basic commitment to those accords.
Seymour Reich, a former Presidents Conference chairman, noted, “Bibi has said from the beginning he doesn’t like Oslo but would adhere to it. But he really hasn’t. Unless the prime minister comes up with some proposals the United States and the Palestinians are prepared to accept, Oslo may be buried.”
But there were few signs of such clouds on the horizon last weekend. Sunday morning, just before the Israel Day Parade, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani brought some 1,000 guests at Gracie Mansion to their feet as he blasted the administration for pressuring Israel during his breakfast reception in honor of Israel’s 50th anniversary.
Netanyahu, standing at his side, stressed Israel, and only Israel, could determine its security needs in deciding how much land to cede on the West Bank. He noted that the administration itself had earlier conceded this right in a written assurance to Israel after its redeployment from Hebron last year.