Washington — He won’t be here for the summit, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be all but unavoidable in Washington this week on a quite different mission: taking his case to the American public for bucking President Clinton’s proposals to rekindle a gasping Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
That summit, which Clinton urged Israel to attend with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat on Monday, was meant to inaugurate final-status talks that Netanyahu himself had long demanded. But Netanyahu rejected the administration’s demand that Israel turn over 13 percent of West Bank land to Palestinian control as a condition for the meeting. The Palestinians already had agreed to a package of American proposals, including concessions on land.
Israeli and U.S. sources say Netanyahu plans to use the visit to
explain his position and galvanize opposition to intensifying U.S. pressure. His plans to do so include meetings with friends in Congress, and particularly a Republican leadership that has been vehement in its criticism of President Clinton. A media blitz is also planned.
Administration officials and mainstream Jewish leaders worried that Netanyahu’s attempt to tap anti-Clinton forces in Congress could add to U.S.-Israel strains.
“There’s a real danger if that’s his strategy,” said Seymour Reich, former president of the American Zionist Movement and one-time chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “It would be a mistake if he turned this into a partisan appeal mostly to Republicans.”
But most Jewish leaders tried to put a positive spin on Netanyahu’s aggressive Washington schedule.
“He’s coming to make his case directly to the audiences that count for him: the Jewish community, Capitol Hill, the media,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “The question is how it’s done. If it’s done to present Israel’s point of view, it’s one thing; if it’s done to escalate the current tensions in U.S.-Israel relations, which I doubt is his intention, it would be far riskier.”
That gentle warning was underlined Tuesday when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright herself cautioned Netanyahu against using his trip as an offensive against the administration.
Albright canceled a trip to Germany with Clinton to meet with Netanyahu Wednesday, at Clinton’s instruction. But even before then Albright launched a public relations effort of her own with a hastily arranged Tuesday speech to the National Press Club, meetings with several top Jewish leaders and sessions on Capitol Hill.
In her speech, Albright portrayed the recent American proposals as “balanced, flexible, practical and reasonable, and based on the concept of reciprocity.” She forcefully rejected charges that the administration is trying to impose a settlement on the Israelis.
“We are not a party to the negotiations,” she said. “It is not our right nor our intention, nor is it within our capacity to dictate terms or impose a settlement.”
At the same time, she said, “Our credibility and interests are indeed affected by what Israelis and Palestinian and Arabs do or fail to do. We are prepared to support their efforts as long as we judge they are serious about wanting to reach an agreement, serious enough to make the decision necessary to achieve it.”
Without naming names, Albright blasted Mideast leaders who put politics above peacemaking, but she also said U.S.-Israel relations are not dependent on progress in the peace talks.
“Our commitment to Israel’s security does not come with a time limit,” she said. “It will continue today and tomorrow and as long as the sun shines. That will be true whether there is progress in the peace process or not.”
She reaffirmed the 1997 commitment by former Secretary of State Warren Christopher that Israel has the right to decide how much land to turn over to the Palestinians, but argued that in a genuine “partnership” arrangement, Israel should consider Palestinian concerns.
Before the speech, Albright met with nine top Jewish leaders, including Abraham Foxman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League; Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; and Mel Salberg, chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Jewish leaders and some Israeli diplomats privately warned the prime minister to avoid turning this week’s visit into a political free-for-all, but early signs suggested that Netanyahu plans a media and political blitz clearly intended to cut the administration’s maneuvering room.
The Israeli leader was scheduled to meet with congressional leaders, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who called the recent American invitation to a summit to start “final-status” talks “blackmail”; Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.); and Rep. Ben Gilman (R-Rockland), chair of the House International Relations Committee.
Officials at the Israeli Embassy pointed out that Democrats will be included in these sessions, but congressional sources say the meetings will have a distinctly GOP flavor.
Netanyahu was also scheduled for a series of network television interviews and sessions with friendly columnists to make his case directly to the American people. On Thursday night he addresses the annual convention of the American Jewish Committee in Washington before leaving for a round of appearances in New York.
The capstone of his public relations effort will be a Sunday speech to the annual policy conference of AIPAC, a setting that may elicit particularly tough rhetoric from the Israeli leader. Also on Sunday, Netanyahu will participate in the Salute to Israel Parade in Manhattan.
An appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations was canceled at the last minute in favor of an address to the friendlier Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The AJCommittee’s Harris said that Netanyahu believes he has a strong hand in Washington.
“He sees the letter from 81 senators, he sees strong support for Israel in the recent New York Times survey, he sees recent polls showing strong American Jewish support for him — and he believes he has a lot going for him,” Harris said.
The Clinton administration spent much of the week trying to look unruffled in the face of a rising chorus of dismay from Jewish leaders over last week’s escalation in U.S. involvement in the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Publicly, the White House insisted that there had been no deadline imposed on the Israeli leader and no threat to accept the American plan or face a dire-sounding “re-examination” of U.S. policy in the talks.
Privately, administration officials were hoping that Wednesday’s Netanyahu-Albright meeting produces enough progress to avert a showdown that the White House dreads.
Netanyahu, according to Israeli reports, will discuss a compromise formula for an immediate 9 percent West Bank redeployment, with 2 to 4 percent more held in “escrow” by the United States until it determines the Palestinians have complied with requirements for added measures against terrorism. Administration sources expressed interest in the proposal, but it was unclear whether Arafat could be induced to accept.
Some peace process advocates expressed hope that Netanyahu would use the visit to find a formula that would enable him to go home and declare victory — while quietly working out a deal that would allow the further redeployment and the final-status talks to begin.
“He’s been given enough by the Americans to allow that to happen,” said Mark Rosenblum, political director of Americans for Peace Now. “The question now is whether he reveals himself to be a diplomatic pragmatist or an ideological, roll-of-the-dice kind of guy. Unfortunately, he’s been very good in the past in using the politics of stall-mate.”
Some advocates of a stronger U.S. role in the negotiations saw this week’s surprise Albright-Netanyahu session as an effort to back down after Netanyahu called the president’s bluff.
Last week’s administration action calling for a Monday summit in Washington, but only if Netanyahu agreed to American conditions, “was overdue, but unfortunately it was also half-baked,” said Judith Kipper, co-director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
But a number of Jewish leaders felt the administration had crossed a dangerous line by creating at least the impression of an ultimatum.
“They’ve interjected themselves as partners in the negotiations on behalf of one of the parties,” said Thomas Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “That is a very dangerous precedent that will cause major problems in the U.S.-Israel relationship in the future.”