Published in The Jerusalem Post on March 21, 1999
Bill Clinton wants Binyamin Netanyahu to lose the upcoming elections. Through insinuation and insult the message is clear. Just so the President should know: the Israeli electorate is up to his game, and once again it will backfire.
On the surface, the Clinton team desperately wants to avoid the 1996 precedent and not be seen as interfering too obviously in Israeli election politics. Well, they sure as heck aren’t doing too well at maintaining the pretenses of neutrality.
Last time around, President Clinton himself weighed-in frontally, forcefully and unabashedly on behalf of Shimon Peres. Recall the Sharm al-Sheikh international shindig on terrorism that was so blatantly orchestrated for Peres’ campaign, and the numerous photo-ops Clinton provided Peres, in Washington and Jerusalem, just prior to the vote?
This time, Clinton wants Israelis to know that his Administration is dissatisfied with Bibi — without hurting Barak. To demonstratively snub Bibi, while claiming nonpartisanship. To have his cake and eat it too.
Clinton just refuses to see Netanyahu. Remember the episode about a year ago when the two leaders sat in their jets for four hours at Los Angeles airport, but Clinton couldn’t find the time to meet Netanyahu? That same week, he had time for Leah Rabin and Shimon Peres in the White House.
More recently, Vice President (and presidential candidate) Al Gore declined to meet Netanyahu at the economic summit in Davos; Secretary of State Albright refused to see Ariel Sharon last month in Washington; Assistant Secretary Indyk spent this month touring Syria, Jordan, Morocco and Turkey — but pointedly not Israel; and Secretary of Defense William Cohen arrived here determined to avoid meeting Bibi, claiming the exigencies of “neutrality”. In the end, he was forced to meet Bibi, Barak and Mordechai – for balance.
And now, there is the rumor that First Lady (and likely New York Senatorial candidate) Hillary Clinton will be visiting the region very soon – but not Israel. That would require a meeting with the prime minister and blow the “neutrality” — I mean the “snub Bibi” — strategy.
Curiously, none of this stopped Clinton’s politically-astute aides, Dennis Ross and Sandy Berger, from inviting Center Party candidate Yitzhak Mordechai to the White House just three days ago for the Rabin Center’s “Shalom Chaver Award” ceremonies.
I ask: just will happen on May 24th, after the first round of voting, when Prime Minister Netanyahu visits Washington for his annual address to the AIPAC policy conference? Will Clinton attempt to weasel out of the traditional meeting at the White House with the visiting PM, disingenuously claiming neutrality?
And one more thing: Yasser Arafat has had the pleasure of meeting his good friend Bill Clinton three times since Wye, twice on a solo basis in the White House — including the visit scheduled for the day after tomorrow.
The snubbing runs even deeper. Whenever Israeli governments fall from Washington’s grace this is how they are punished: nasty stories get leaked by the Administration about illegal Israeli technology transfers; senior officials make angry noises about Israeli settlements in the territories; we hear of the possibility that aid to Israel will be held-up; and a fuss is made about US officials not visiting the occupied territories.
Check, check, check, check. The old stories about nefarious Israeli-Chinese arms deals were recently dredged out of storage and appropriately leaked. Last week, Dennis Ross fulminated uncharacteristically about how ‘destructive’ settlements are to peace. It was suggested, then denied, that the Palestinians would get their aid for living up to Wye treaty commitments — but Israel wouldn’t. And at the last minute, US Army Staff College officials were barred last week from touring the territories, on orders from on-high.
Even the frantic American and European effort to prevent a unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence on May 4 – a worthy effort in and of itself for which I’m appreciative – smells of defeat-Bibi considerations. They are just oh-so-worried in Washington, Paris and elsewhere that this would play into Netanyahu’s hands.
OF COURSE, the US is within its rights. It is perfectly legitimate for Bill Clinton to tell Israelis that there is a diplomatic price, with his Administration, for failing “to move forward” with the peace process, as he sees it. If Clinton feels that the PA has lived up to its Wye commitments and Netanyahu’s government hasn’t, who am I to stop him from zestfully attempting to sell us this absurd perspective at every opportunity and in every contemptuous way?
But it is not smart. Watch for the boomerang.
Much like Arye Deri with Shas, Netanyahu will turn the snubbing to his favor. “These rash Americans are attempting to push us into more unsound treaties with Arafat!”, he’ll say. Yes, he’ll admit to voters, there has been a diplomatic cost for slowing down the process and lowering Arab and Western expectations of Israeli withdrawal. But that needed to be done. The Wye battle to guarantee Palestinian compliance with their commitments is far from over, Bibi will demonstrate.
In the meantime, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Gore might reconsider what the snub strategy will do to *their* election campaigns. In this nasty test of wills with the Israeli government, and its friends abroad, I’m not so sure the First Lady and Vice President will be coming out ahead.