Administration officials are straining to keep up their public facade of impartiality as the election campaign in Israel heads toward a noisy conclusion. But just below the surface are mounting concerns about the impact of a victory by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the promised U.S. effort to revive the Israeli-Palestinian talks — and a growing realization that even a victory by his chief opponent, Labor leader Ehud Barak, is no guarantee that a new U.S. initiative will advance quickly.
Administration officials and Jewish leaders point out that much will depend on what kind of government the victor assembles in June.
And the U.S. reaction will be affected by external events. With two active wars and major crises in relations with China and Russia, “it is very unclear how much a distracted president will be willing to invest in the Middle East,” said Robert O. Freedman, president of Baltimore Hebrew University.
Regardless of who wins on Monday — or in a June 1 runoff — the administration’s one-year target date for completion of permanent-status talks will be difficult to reach.
“The notion you can complete final-status talks a year from now is pretty unrealistic,” said Yossi Alpher, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel office. “Those talks were initially allotted three years — and even then, many of us felt that while there could be substantial progress, you couldn’t clear up everything.”
A Barak victory, he said, will not immediately jump-start the stalled talks.
“It’s going to take a month to put a government together, another to begin to function,” Alpher said. “By then you’re into August, when everybody in Israel is on vacation. September is the High Holy Days. Realistically, nothing will really start before October.”
If Barak decides to implement the provisions of last year’s Wye River agreement, he said, the Israeli right would likely force an early test of his government that could hold up peace talks even longer.
“The administration will give Barak support and backing, but the question will remain: have Arafat’s expectations been developed to the point where it may be necessary to seek some kind of interim final-status agreement outlining what they might expect from final-status talks in terms of statehood?”
The administration, Alpher suggested, would have little option but to support that effort, even though it would miss the one-year goal set for a final deal.
The impact of a Netanyahu victory in Washington, he said, depends on the kind of coalition the prime minister puts together. Another right-wing/religious government would put U.S.-Israel relations to the test quickly; a national unity government with Labor could produce movement on the Oslo front, although not as much as the administration is likely to demand.
“Either way we’re going to see an attempt by Netanyahu to provide more of same — a very slow, painstaking process, with as little territory given up as possible,” Alpher said.
“There will inevitably be growing tensions with the Palestinians and the administration.”
Washington has proposed an Israeli-Palestinian summit within six months. Both major candidates, Netanyahu and Barak, have indicated they would attend. But Alpher said a summit would be “largely symbolic” no matter who wins. The real change in the dynamics of the negotiations, he said, “is the emergence of a U.S.-Palestinian strategic relationship. The United States and the PLO are now better able to discuss final status issues than are the U.S. and Israel. That is an extraordinary development, and it will change the equation no matter what happens in the election.”
Administration officials worry that a Netanyahu victory and the formation of a religious/right wing government could spur new violence, undercut Arafat and boost attempts to use the United Nations or the European Union as engines in the peace process—a move that a frustrated United States might endorse.
But a Barak victory, several observers said, could prompt a crisis of inflated expectations.
“There is an exaggerated sense of the progress that can be made if a Labor government comes in,” said Henry Siegman, director of the Mideast program at the Council on Foreign Relations. “That’s particularly true within the Palestinian population — but also in Washington.”
A new Labor government, he said, would probably move quickly to implement the Wye accords and start permanent-status negotiations.
“But there is a down side; it means they will reach a discussion of the very contentious final-status issues much more quickly,” he said. “It will come as a sober shock to everybody that the distance between the Israeli position as represented by Labor and the Palestinian demands remains wide indeed.”
If expectations of a quick turnaround in the talks are dashed, Arafat will be under enormous pressure to make a move on statehood without waiting — and a frustrated administration may be more inclined to go along, he suggested.
Other observers argue that the administration has not been as detached from the election as it claims.
“There’s no doubt this administration has been campaigning for Labor,” said Douglas Feith, a national security official in the Reagan administration. “That, in my opinion, is not a healthy development in a relationship between two democratic allies.”
After the election, the administration will pursue the same goals “either in cooperation with the Israeli government or without that cooperation,” Feith said. “They are hell-bent on creating a Palestinian state; they are perfectly comfortable substituting their own judgments about Israel security over those of the Israeli authorities.”
Feith said a Netanyahu victory would increase U.S.-Israel strains as the administration presses for more territorial concessions, although he said strong support for the Netanyahu government in Congress would offer a counterweight and “keep them within bounds.”
Daniel Pipes, editor of Middle East Quarterly and a leading critic of administration policy in the region, said that the administration’s promises to Arafat in recent weeks may add to U.S.-Israel strains.
“The promises make me very nervous,” he said. “The idea that we are here to solve the problem, that we can succeed by pushing the reluctant parties, is fundamentally flawed. That won’t change no matter who is elected on May 17.”