The Clinton administration is stepping up its efforts to salvage something from last month’s Camp David meltdown and boost a battered Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
To help the Israeli leader, President Bill Clinton this week signaled that he will now consider moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a sharp reversal of policy that was also meant as a kind of shock therapy for Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.
Barak said Tuesday that the U.S. plans to “rent offices” in Jerusalem by Jan. 20, “and they will build an embassy.”
At the same time Congress was preparing a blunt message to Arafat that a unilateral declaration of statehood on Sept. 13 will provoke a strong U.S. response, including a possible aid cutoff.
So far, there are few indications
Arafat is paying attention to the threats and the scathing criticisms of his Camp David performance.
This week the Palestinian leader, touring European and Arab capitals to tell his side of the Camp David debacle, told a Saudi newspaper that “there is no retreat on the fixed timetable of the declaration of the state. It will be declared at the fixed time, which is Sept. 13, God willing, regardless of those who agree or disagree.”
This week U.S. officials were scattered across the globe, trying to find a formula for reviving talks that crashed against the brick wall of Jerusalem.
Edward Walker, the assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, was in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, trying to convince leaders there to play a constructive rather than a destructive role on Jerusalem. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited officials in the Vatican, seeking their “wisdom” on negotiations over the city’s future. But Church officials continued to insist on an international protectorate for the city that would give the Vatican a say in its affairs, a proposal is certain to reject.
But it was President Clinton’s striking statement on the embassy issue that galvanized pro-Israel forces here.
Clinton made the comments during an interview with Israel television last week — an interview he was asked to do by Barak, who came home from Camp David to face a no-confidence vote and the possibility of additional defections from his government, including Foreign Minister David Levy, who resigned on Wednesday.
Clinton said that while he had previously resisted congressional pressure to move the embassy, “in light of what has happened [at Camp David], I’ve taken that decision under review and I’ll make a decision some time between now and the end of the year.”
The prime minister survived the vote on Monday, giving him a three-month reprieve while the Knesset is out of session.
“The assumption was that the major problem [after Camp David] was to help the government of Israel survive the period of parliamentary rest,” said Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace. “But the question now is whether Clinton will be in a position to resume the role of mediator if the Israelis and Palestinians do get back on track. That will be a real challenge.”
Clinton is “being careful” on the embassy issue, Cohen said. “He’s talking about moving it to West Jerusalem, and he’s talking about moving it at the end of this year. There is some logic to that.”
The embassy threat and the increasingly tough presidential rhetoric could provide the jolt needed to get Arafat back to the negotiating table, other Jewish leaders said — but they could also just inflame the Palestinians sense of victimization, and make it even harder to drag Arafat back to the negotiating table.
But most Jewish leaders welcomed the apparent shift. Even some pro-peace supporters who have opposed congressional efforts to move the embassy while talks are under way are now urging the president to begin the process of moving the embassy.
“With Israel’s proposals on Jerusalem finally on the table, we see no remaining benefit to deferring the embassy move indefinitely,” said the leaders of the Israel Policy Forum, a peace process advocacy group, in a letter to Clinton.
The embassy issue re-emerged last week even as the summit was gasping to an unsuccessful conclusion.
Barak and his lieutenants raised it in calls to congressional leaders and top pro-Israel activists. Also pushing for the embassy move is Israel’s ambassador, David Ivry.
The Barak government and the government of former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin had urged their friends here not to push the embassy issue while the peace process hung in the balance. But with the Camp David failure, Barak made an abrupt about-face.
But Jewish leaders cautioned that the move was far from a done deal.
“A lot of factors went into what the president said,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “It’s very fluid; we don’t know how it will play out.”
An official with another Jewish organization said that “if Arafat responds by coming back with some serious proposals, the administration may again put the embassy question on hold. If he maintains his uncompromising stance, the administration no longer has any real reason to hold back — and plenty of good political reasons to go forward with the move.”
At the top of the political list: Hillary Clinton’s New York Senate race.
“There’s no indication the president raised the issue to help Hillary,” this official said. “But it can’t hurt, either.”
This week Clinton and her Republican rival, Rep. Rick Lazio, vied with each other over who wants the move to take place the fastest.
Clinton went several steps further than her husband, saying the embassy should be moved before the end of the year; Lazio insisted the embassy be moved “immediately.”
Hezbollah, at least, takes the possibility of an embassy move to Jerusalem seriously. This week the group’s leader, Sheik Hassan Naraliah, threatened to “turn your embassy into rubble and return your diplomats in coffins.”
Over on Capitol Hill, anger at Arafat was taking a different form. Just before leaving for their summer recess, lawmakers took up a measure that would cut off U.S. aid if Arafat declares statehood prior to an agreement with Israel. The measure, cosponsored by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), would also prohibit spending for any diplomatic facilities in a Palestinian state declared before negotiations with Israel were complete.
Backers say threatening an aid cutoff is the only way to get Arafat’s attention.
“This bill sends a very clear message to the Palestinian Authority,” Nadler said. “Negotiations must continue.”
Opponents argue that it will just add to the misery of the Palestinian people, since current law requires that U.S. aid — about $100 million annually — goes only to Palestinian non-governmental organizations, many of which provide basic services.
The measure would also cut off funds the Palestinians are supposedly using to combat terrorism in Gaza and the West Bank, critics say — “assistance that has been instrumental in training and equipping Palestinian security forces to fight terrorism,” said Debra DeLee, CEO of Americans for Peace Now.
APN, while calling a unilateral declaration “ill advised,” is opposing the measure.
The administration is not officially endorsing the legislation, but Capitol Hill sources say the White House has signaled that it sees the threat of an aid cutoff — like the shift on the embassy move — as potentially useful in the effort to avert a unilateral declaration.
With the failure of this week’s no-confidence motions, “Barak has a three-month window of opportunity,” said veteran Mideast observer David Makovsky, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s good to fire these warning shots, but we have to keep our eyes on the ball. And the ball is the question of whether there’s hope of reviving Camp David or not?”
The real issue for Washington, he said, is finding ways to convince leaders in Saudi Arabia and Egypt to push Arafat toward a deal on Jerusalem, not away from one.
“That should be the next move,” he said. “If we’re going to walk the last mile for peace, we have to walk it with the guys who can made a