by James D. Besser
Washington and Jerusalem appeared on a collision course this week as the Clinton administration pressed forward with a series of proposals for ending the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate that the Netanyahu government regards as dangerous and intrusive.
But by midweek there were indications that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was trying frantically to avert a major showdown by offering a new compromise formula. It reportedly would offer less land than the Americans are demanding, but more continuous territory; sources in Washington suggest that is unlikely to fly, since the U.S. proposals are already regarded as favoring Israel, but they say any new suggestions will be considered.
Netanyahu’s actions were prompted by Israel’s concern over the threatened publication of Washington’s proposals, and the promise that the U.S. would apportion
blame for the Mideast impasse.
Those are the dynamics underlying special Mideast envoy Dennis Ross’ trip to the region this week. In the diplo-speak of the State Department, the goal of his mission is to “finalize U.S. ideas to restart the peace talks.”
But even before the peripatetic envoy left, Netanyahu and his cabinet had rejected out of hand the widely reported administration proposals, which include a phased 13 percent Israeli withdrawal from West Bank land coupled to significant improvements in Palestinian security performance.
At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, the plan was labeled “unacceptable,” and Netanyahu told reporters it would compromise Israel’s security.
Some American Jewish leaders agreed.
“How do you ‘finalize’ something that hasn’t been accepted by Israel?” asked a pro-Israel leader this week. “The use of the word is revealing, because it belies the administration’s argument that there is no new plan and that they do not plan to pressure Israel.”
The hardline reaction in Jerusalem came after weeks of vigorous Israeli lobbying against any public airing of the plan, including visits by several cabinet ministers and efforts to mobilize congressional Republicans to oppose any new American intervention. It also came after two urgent calls from Netanyahu to President Bill Clinton over the weekend asking that the proposals remain secret.
Ross will follow UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the region. Annan met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week in an attempt to break the deadlock.
But Annan’s enthusiastic welcome by the Palestinians — and the disastrous visit to the region by British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook last week — have only increased the termination of the Netanyahu government not to budge on the redeployment issue or the question of a settlements freeze, analysts here say.
This week, speaking before the United Jewish Appeal young leadership conference, Israeli communications minister Limor Livnat blasted Cook’s “pitiful antics,” and lashed out what her government insists is a new and sweeping American plan.
“No government of Israel has ever allowed another country to determine the country’s security requirements,” she said, “and we are not going to be the first.”
Israel reportedly was willing to give up only 9.5 percent of the West Bank in the next redeployment; the Palestinians want 30 percent, which the administration sees as unrealistic.
After Ross’ mission, sources here say, the administration will assess the reactions of the Israelis and Palestinians. The assumption by some officials here is that the Israelis will reject the proposals, while the Palestinians — under strong pressure from Washington — will accept.
Then, the administration will decide whether to publish their proposals and go forward with a public assessment of blame for the stalled negotiations.
“If both sides say ‘no,’ the administration will consider the peace process to have reached a dead end,” said Henry Siegman, director of the Mideast program of the Council on Foreign Relations. “But if Israel says no and the Palestinians accept the plan, the administration will then say that they’ve reached the point where the process can’t move forward because one side is making it impossible.
“Clearly Netanyahu has reason to think that’s where things are heading, because he’s been working feverishly to make it difficult for the administration to do it.”
Critics say that the administration is deliberately threatening U.S.-Israel relations in an effort to force unilateral Israeli concessions.
“Their plan is to squeeze Israel,” said Douglas Feith, a national security staffer during the Reagan administration and a persistent critic of the Clinton Mideast effort. “They seem to think you can’t hold the Palestinian Authority responsible for their violations. The way to deal with them is to have the Israelis make even more concessions, and hope that those concessions encourage good behavior by the PA.”
He also said that the White House may be hoping the pressure will weaken Netanyahu “and increase the chances of bringing in a Labor government again.”
But Ross, in a speech before the UJA young leadership conference on Monday, was conciliatory. He insisted that Washington will not impose its own plan on the Israelis and Palestinians, but that both sides need to do more to end what he called a “crisis of confidence.”
He added that “there are no imposed solutions. … Any agreement has to be something the two sides can live with.”
Jewish leaders this week were cautious about the latest American initiative, but also wary about Netanyahu government calls to man the barricades against it.
“The American role is not to negotiate, but to facilitate,” said Abraham Foxman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“What the administration seems to be doing now is map writing, not simply bridging gaps. The moment the U.S. gives its recommendations, it is taking a position, no matter what they call it.”
But Americans for Peace Now political director Mark Rosenblum said that “the expansion of the American role from facilitator to mediator and recommender has not crossed any red lines in terms of imposing solutions. I see this as a positive intervention because it will help fill a vacuum in the region that can only lead to more violence with something that at least could buy some more time.”
The prime minister, he said, is convinced that the Clinton is preoccupied with its domestic scandals, and that it will back down in the face of strong resistance from American Jewish groups.
“He has some strong cards, but I think he’s wrong about where the American Jewish community is,” Rosenblum said. “The community will support increased American involvement in the peace process, despite recent polls that are all over the place.”