Washington Nudging, Not Squeezing
The Clinton administration’s ire over the de facto freeze in implementation of the Wye River agreement — anger directed primarily at the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — was kept at a low simmer this week as officials here tried hard to express their displeasure without getting entangled in the political melee taking place in Israel.
On Monday, State Department spokesman James Rubin asserted that the Palestinians “have been making a good faith effort to implement a number of the commitments in the Wye Agreement, including the commitment to amend the charter of the Palestinian National Council and the fight against terrorism.”
In contrast, he said, “it is the Israelis who have not fulfilled any of their Phase Two obligations” by postponing the required West Bank
That was the strongest statement of displeasure yet from the administration, but it did not come close to matching the mood of anger and frustration among the administration’s Mideast team.
Officials here were particularly infuriated by a Washington Times op-ed by Israeli ambassador Zalman Shoval that they saw as shifting all of the blame for the stalled talks to the Palestinians.
But administration officials say they are not likely to respond positively to Palestinian demands that they step up the pressure on the Netanyahu government. To do so, they believe, would produce a backlash in Israel that would give the embattled prime minister a powerful weapon to use in his reelection bid.
“Rightly or wrongly, they seem very frustrated with Israel’s response to implementation, and they’re making that very clear,” said Martin Raffel, director of the Israel task force of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “But they also recognize that they can’t force the Israeli government to go down a road they don’t want to go down. No amount of U.S. pressure will change that — especially not now.”
Raffel said that “strong encouragement to get things going, not pressure” will dominate U.S. policy through the election period, but stressed that the decision to avoid an overt squeeze goes beyond worries about an electoral backlash.
“It represents a growing understanding that this is the reality they have to deal with in the long term,” he said.
Also this week, Special Envoy Dennis Ross, addressing the annual seminar of the Peres Center for Peace, suggested that the administration will take a much less active role in final status negotiations — if those talks ever get off the ground.
“The key here is not that you have anybody mediate,” he said. “The key here is that the two sides will be able to negotiate this on their own. For them to be able to do it in the end, they have to approach it from the standpoint of partnership. If there is not going to be partnership, then there is not going to be a permanent status agreement.”
He added that Washington “will not be indifferent to this process,” but stressed that officials in Washington expect to take a much less active role in final status negotiations.
Russia Sanctions May Be Too Late
Jewish leaders reacted cautiously to this week’s announcement of sanctions against three more Russian institutions accused of contributing to Iran’s ballistic missile program. Those measures are welcome, they said, but may be too little, too late. The Iranian program may have already reached a critical mass, and Russian cooperation in slowing technology transfers seems to have evaporated.
“Every step is important,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a group that has pushed for tougher administration actions against Russian companies and research institutions.
This week’s decision — announced by National Security Adviser Sandy Berger at a nonproliferation conference — adds to sanctions imposed in July against seven other Russian institutions. “There are signs some in the administration are taking this seriously,” Hoenlein said. “But we’ve lost a lot of time. And with the situation in Russia, the fear is that there are no controls. What the administration did this week sends a message, but it’s not a solution.”
Most Jewish lobbyists in Washington expect the 106th Congress to be even more unproductive than its predecessor — which may not be a bad thing if reports that House Republicans plan to resurrect last year’s defeated school prayer amendment are accurate.
This week, Judiciary Committee sources indicated that the Istook Amendment — named after Rep. Ernest Jim Istook (R-Okla.), one of the Christian right’s leading lights in Congress — will be high on their agenda in the upcoming session.
Last year the amendment won a majority in the House, but not the two-thirds needed for a constitutional amendment.
Jewish activists here had hoped that defeat, along with indications the new Republican leadership wants to emphasize pocketbook issues such as taxes and Social Security reform over the social agenda promoted by groups such as the Christian Coalition, meant that the amendment would not reappear in the 106th Congress.
But this week there were clear signs that Istook is cranking up the machinery for another try — and that leading Republicans will support him.
“We’re very concerned about the prospects for this coming up again,” said David Harris, Washington director for the American Jewish Congress. “Since there are a number of new members, this means we will have to begin a new education campaign as soon as the committee begins working.”
The narrower Republican majority, he said, could mean Jewish groups — almost all of which oppose the Istook amendment — will have an easier time of it, although he warned that a renewed amendment drive could also spawn easier-to-pass school prayer legislation.
Rising Concern About Russian Anti-Semitism
The worsening situation in Russia, where leading communists have resurrected age-old anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in their battle against President Boris Yeltsin, has prompted new action from Jewish groups concerned about the fate of that country’s large Jewish population.
This week the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ) inaugurated a letter writing campaign here and in Russia aimed squarely at Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, whose anti-Semitic tirades in recent months have frightened the Jewish community there.
“The hope is to isolate Zyuganov and his party in Russia, and to alert policymakers here,” said NCSJ’s director, Mark Levin. “We are hoping to show that there is no place in a civilized society for political leaders who espouse the views he does. He’s bringing back language that hasn’t been heard in official circles since before the breakup of the Soviet Union.”
Worried Russian Jews, he said, “have become increasingly assertive. Now we’re seeing some who have gained political influence trying to use that for the benefit of the community.”
Despite recent incidents of vandalism, he said, most Russian Jews are not in any immediate danger.
“The real danger is more long term. It’s what Zyuganov is doing to legitimize these anti-Semitic views in today’s world, for political purposes.”
The Clinton administration, he said, is working closely with Jewish groups. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has promised that the issue of official anti-Semitism in Russia will be high on her agenda when she travels to Moscow later in the month.
The Helsinki Commission will also hold hearings on Capitol Hill on the rising tide of bigotry in Russia later this month.
Wellstone Opts Out
The only Jew in the 2000 presidential race — the longest of long shots, most political observers agreed — has pulled out.
Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), one of the few unrepentant liberals on Capitol Hill, has given up his quixotic White House bid after testing the waters in key primary states and starting the daunting process of campaign fund raising.
Wellstone cited chronic back problems, which he said would make it impossible to withstand the ordeal of an all-out assault on the presidency.
Political observers say another factor in Wellstone’s decision was the fact that his efforts in Iowa and New Hampshire were not making much of a dent in the polls, which continue to show Vice-President Al Gore as a strong frontrunner, trailed by former senator and NBA Hall of Famer Bill Bradley. Bradley filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday.
Wellstone supporters concede privately that he had little chance of winning the nomination, but that his presence in the race and his low-key style of campaigning could bolster the sagging liberal wing of the party.