President Bill Clinton and his Mideast team may be getting what they want as Israel moves toward early elections that could prematurely end the reign of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But there’s little elation in Washington, where memories of the last election — when Clinton’s virtual endorsement of Shimon Peres produced a backlash that has soured relations between the two leaders to this day — and anxiety about the May 4 Mideast train wreck are strong. That date, which marks the end of the Oslo interim period, is when Yasir Arafat has threatened to declare Palestinian statehood.
Officials here are caught between two bad options. Standing on the sidelines and allowing implementation of the Wye River Memorandum to stall could prove fatal to the Israeli-Palestinian talks. But efforts to push both sides to implement the agreement while elections, scheduled for May 17, are in the offing could be taken as interference in Israel’s internal affairs — a perception that is certain to blow up in the administration’s face.
“Almost everything in Israel is seen through a political lens,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “The administration will have to be very careful about who it embraces and what positions it takes in the coming months because everything will be used and abused by all sides in Israel.”
Observers here say the administration is unlikely to repeat the mistake it made in 1996, when Clinton’s virtual endorsement ignited a firestorm in Israel and in the American Jewish community — even though Washington’s unspoken strategy in recent months has been to keep the Israeli-Palestinian talks on life support until a new government that supports the Oslo process is elected.
“I suspect they learned their lesson,” said Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank. “I expect they will studiously avoid even the perception of interference, of siding with one side or another.”
But that may be easier said than done — especially since failing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and prospects for a regional explosion on May 4 will put strong pressure on the administration to remain involved.
“Ideally, the administration should be pushing both sides to comply with Wye,” said an official with a pro-peace process group. “But they are keenly aware that any pressure on Israel will somehow become part of the Israeli political mess. They’re torn between their desire to do something to rescue the talks and the knowledge that what they do could impact the election in unforeseen ways.”
The administration’s dilemma, this observer noted, will be exacerbated by the political situation in Israel, which is growing murkier by the day.
Netanyahu faces challenges from all sides, with Knesset member Benny Begin staking out a position in opposition to the Oslo and Wye accords, former cabinet minister Dan Meridor and recently retired Army chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak trying to shape a new centrist coalition. Likud veteran Uzi Landau will challenge Netanyahu for the party leadership, and former army chief of staff Ehud Barak will carry the Labor banner into battle.
The political free-for-all vastly increases the chances that any U.S. effort to shore up the sinking peace process could turn into fodder for the partisan wars in Israel.
Jewish leaders are prepared to encourage ongoing U.S. efforts in one area: pressuring Arafat to live up to his agreements.
“There’s no reason to believe there will be any need for U.S. pressure — except on the Palestinians, whose compliance continues to be unacceptable,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Hoenlein agreed that the administration “does not want to see the peace process frozen. But they also know any pressures from the outside can work both ways. They know everything they say and do will be watched very closely, here and in Israel.”
Arafat remains a wild card in the Israeli elections. If he continues his foot dragging in complying with Oslo and Wye compliance — or if he seeks to exploit the political confusion in Israel — he could end up boosting Netanyahu, or even Begin.
Tight Budgets Ahead
Jewish activists who were hoping for increases in vital health and welfare programs in 1999 may be in for a disappointment, according to some analysts.
Despite a growing budget surplus — the result of an economy that keeps on booming, despite economic crises in other parts of the world — the pressure will be strong to keep federal spending down as the 106th Congress gets down to business and the administration gets ready to offer its spending proposals for fiscal year 2000.
“It’s going to be a difficult year because there’s a perception that there’s a lot of money —but in fact there’s very little in the budget to play with,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Spending caps incorporated into recent budget resolutions mean that there will be almost no discretionary funding available for the health, education and welfare programs President Bill Clinton has promised to promote in the last two years of his term.
The administration hopes to find “offsets”— other areas in the federal budget that can be raided to fund new programs without cutting into the budget surplus.
But offsets are becoming harder and harder to find.
Legislators are also hearing predictions of an economic slowdown in 1999 that could put a big dent in the surplus, and many have been taking flak from voters about a pork-filled budget bill that ended the 105th Congress. At the same time, the administration is proposing an increase in defense spending — one more strain on the budget.
Jews Sticking With Gore
Will Jewish voters — and, more importantly, Jewish campaign contributors — stick with Vice President Al Gore in his quest for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination?
Jewish Republicans predict a mass exodus, but Democratic activists and political scientists tell a different story.
Despite Gore’s closeness to the scandal-plagued Bill Clinton, they say the vice president will remain a strong front-runner among Jewish voters.
“Predictions that Jews will desert Gore are nonsense,” said presidential historian Allen J. Lichtman of American University.
Lichtman pointed to Gore’s wide base of support in the community — including support from some pro-Israel hardliners who have been unhappy with the Clinton administration’s pressure on Israel as well as from many Jews who take liberal positions on domestic issues.
His potential rivals for the nomination lack that kind of Jewish support, he said.
“The biggest factor may be that Jewish voters simply don’t see viable alternatives,” Lichtman said. “[Former senator and basketball star Bill] Bradley is a great guy, but he’s not a viable candidate. He’s not going to awaken anybody out of their slumber. The Jewish community tends to go for winners, and they aren’t likely to see him as a winner.”
Jews are even less likely to support another run by civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, he said. And House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), apparently sensing the possibility of getting the speaker’s job in 2001, seems to be losing interest in a presidential bid.