The Clinton administration got part of what it wanted in Monday’s landslide defeat of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man they regard as most responsible for suffocating Mideast peace talks. But it will be weeks before they know if they got the rest — a quick jump-start to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a possible resumption of talks with Syria.
There is widespread relief that incoming Prime Minister Ehud Barak, will craft a centrist coalition that will attempt to move the peace process forward. But a growing realization that the new leader — a cautious, security-minded military professional — may move slower than officials here want or Palestinians demand.
Speaking to a group of Jewish activists on Monday, Jordan’s King Abdullah warned against a mood of euphoria in
the wake of the election. Jewish activists and administration officials alike were taking that to heart.
“On one hand I think that given the fact that this is the candidate and the party they wanted to win, the administration will cut Barak some slack,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League. “But there will be strains. Barak is not going to make concessions across the board without regard to Israeli positions, and some of those are not identical with American positions. But the dialogue between the two countries will be more like it was during the Rabin-Peres years.”
But soaring expectations among the Palestinians — fanned by the administration’s letter to Yasir Arafat earlier this month expressing strong support for Palestinian national aspirations — may produce some squabbles even during the honeymoon period, he said.
And that will put new pressure on the American Jewish groups that are hastily readjusting their positions and their rhetoric to cope with a very different Israeli government.
Officially, the Clinton administration reacted to Monday’s stunning election results with decorous praise for Israel’s democratic system and for the outgoing prime minister.
President Bill Clinton, in an official statement, referred to Barak’s “strong mandate” and promised to “continue to work energetically for a just, lasting and comprehensive peace that strengthens Israel’s security.”
Members of Congress were equally circumspect.
“The basic relationship between Israel and the United States was already strong; we are optimistic the change in government will only improve the relationship,” said Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).
Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.), a persistent critic of the Oslo peace process, said that “this prime minister, who obviously has the support of a big majority of Israeli voters, deserves the support of the administration and Congress as he moves forward. That’s in Israel’s best interests and it’s in the best interests of the United States.”
Unofficially, administration officials were ecstatic.
“You could almost hear the sigh of relief crossing the Atlantic from Washington,” said Joel Singer, the former legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry and one of the architects of the first Oslo agreement. “Everyone in Washington is expecting both the Israeli-Syrian and Israel-Palestinian tracks being revived immediately. There is a bullish market in expectations.”
But turning the peace process around will not be a quick process, he said.
“If people expect a real revival of the peace process as it used to be under Rabin, then I think the expectations are based on reality and not on dreams,” he said. “But it would be foolish to expect immediate breakthroughs.”
Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), a leading member of the Jewish delegation in Congress, agreed, saying that restarting the peace process will require some “tough decisions. We have to proceed with great energy, but also with realistic expectations.”
Not so easy to deal with will be soaring Palestinian expectations, which were deliberately raised as part of the U.S. effort to avert an explosion on May 4, when Arafat had threatened to declare a Palestinian state.
The rapid growth of a warm U.S.-Palestinian relationship and recent comments by top administration officials blaming Israel for the current negotiating impasse and praising Palestinian compliance with previous agreements only add to the feeling among Palestinians that the peace process is about to jump on the fast track, said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
“Palestinian expectations are sky high,” he said. “There is a wide gap between the red lines Gen. Barak has set out and what the Palestinians expect. If the gap isn’t bridged, it’s an invitation to new tensions.”
Harris said the new Barak government will have to move quickly to cement relations with Washington and set out a clear vision for how it plans to move the peace process forward.
At the same time, American Jewish groups will play a significant role in tempering the administration’s expectations and explaining Barak’s need for caution, he said.
But the role of Jewish groups in the capital will be easier because of the administration’s perception “that Barak is someone who they can do business with; they see that as a change,” he said.
At a photo op with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Tuesday, President Clinton promised to follow the “map” laid out by last year’s Wye River agreement and indicated he would give the new leader time to form a government before ratcheting up the administration’s peace process efforts.
Administration insiders say it is likely Clinton will send special Mideast envoy Dennis Ross to the region in the next few weeks to sound out the parties about a resumption of talks, urge both sides to move forward on Wye implementation and discuss the possibility of a Mideast summit in Washington within six months, suggested recently by the president.
Sources in Israel say Barak will probably travel to Washington soon after he forms a government. One purpose of that trip will be to set parameters for the accelerated final-status talks the administration and the Palestinians are seeking.
Barak will also seek to bolster support in Congress, where pro-Likud forces have been successful in generating stiff resistance to administration peace process efforts.
Some analysts also expect other visitors — left-of-center Labor politicians who may try to use Washington to press the new government to move faster than it wants.
“Barak won on the same platform used in Rabin’s 1992 campaign — as a tough, security-minded general,” said Douglas Feith, a national security official during the Reagan administration and an Oslo critic. “It will be interesting to see if Barak sticks with those positions; Rabin, after all, set aside the platform and endorsed Oslo.”