Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 1996, pg. 22

Special Report

After Netanyahu’s Visit: No Peace In Our Time

by Eugene Bird

On the day that Jonathan Pollard was visited by three members of the Knesset, and the same day that the head of the Palestinian police force requested and got a meeting with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, Bibi Netanyahu made his second visit to the White House since becoming the first directly elected prime minister of Israel. Was he able to get this second appointment in less than six weeks with the most sought- after leader in the world only because he had ever so reluctantly agreed to shake hands with Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat the previous week?

That is what both Israeli and American journalists have written, citing unnamed officials. Yet Ambassador Dennis Ross, when asked if Netanyahu’s meeting with Arafat had been the administration’s price for a second meeting with Clinton, replied unequivocally, “It is not true.”

What’s going on? The correspondents covering what was billed as a “private visit” (is any visit by an Israeli prime minister private?) were refusing to believe the denial of Ambassador Ross, who has been in charge of “peace process” affairs at the Department of State through both the Bush and Clinton administrations. The journalists cited Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who had said in London the previous day that the U.S. wanted “concrete steps” from the Israelis, both with regard to the Palestinians and the Syrians.

If that was true, the White House got only vintage Netanyahu, claiming that he was not placing any preconditions on talks with Syria while clearly doing just that: “The Syrians can bring up anything they want....What is important to me is security and that the Jewish towns and villages in the Golan not be touched. If these two interests are safeguarded, I don’t care about a kilometer here or there.” That is the extent of the flexibility on Syria. Since the “Jewish towns and villages” all have been erected on the Golan land Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war, all sources agree that will be turned down flat by the Syrians.

There not only is considerable prevarication going on here, there is also a script that apparently goes like this: Israel’s prime minister must meet Arafat only under some undefined pressure from the Americans, otherwise he has trouble with his own coalition. Thus the contrived leak to friendly American and Israeli journalists who are told that the prime minister would be refused the White House visit that is required on every visit by an Israeli leader, to reassure his countrymen that he continues in the good graces of America and its benevolent aid and assistance.

At the same time, signals must come from the administration, at a suitable distance from the president himself, that the president is not being pushed around by Israel: The story fitted in with the Christopher phrasing that “concrete steps” were being demanded of the Israelis. But the press report widely believed in Israel and in the U.S. that Clinton was holding out the White House visit as a weapon to force Netanyahu to meet Arafat was easy to deny. It probably never happened.

The contrived confrontation did have some substance in it. Washington did raise the problem of Hebron and the closure but got nowhere, except for a concession already made during the Palestine donors conference the previous week. At that meeting Israel agreed to an additional 20 or 30 thousand permits for Palestinians to work inside Israel. But the painful consequences of the seven-month closure will continue to undercut any peace process that is left.

A Predictable Course

The prime minister thus set the predictable course for the future: A very reluctant Israel will, after some pressure from the combined American and international donor community, agree to give the Palestinians half a loaf on some minor issue. For example, granting 50 thousand more work permits is far short of giving the Palestine taxing authority enough tax income to prevent a default or budget crises for the Authority. The difference will have to be made up by the donors who are trying to use their money for projects, not budget support.

Meanwhile, on the really important issue of Palestinian access to the Holy City for both religious and commercial purposes, Israel continues the blockade of Palestinians. Bill Clinton “discusses” the subject with Netanyahu each time, but there is no effect on the ground.

Hebron is now in the hands of a committee set up by Netanyahu with the Palestinians. PA Minister Nabil Shaath told a Washington audience on Sept. 6, the weekend before the Netanyahu visit, that the Palestinians were going to hold Israel responsible for carrying out the terms of the original agreement with the Peres government. He added, however, that other subjects regarding Hebron could and would be discussed.

Essentially, Netanyahu is weaseling out of the agreements on Syria already conceded by his predecessors, claiming they were only under negotiation (for three years!) and did not bind his government. He is doing the same thing on Hebron. If the White House, for whatever reason, does not insist on implementation of these agreements already entered into, what really is left of the land-for-peace process begun at Madrid under the Bush administration and continued through Israeli withdrawals from major Palestinian towns under the Clinton administration?

In the West Bank and Gaza they have produced only a kind of half-way house toward Palestinians escaping from Israeli occupation that has now lasted half the life of the state of Israel.

And of the all-important, critical peace with Syria, nothing at all remains. Even the Clinton administration no longer is wearing a smiley face while duscussing progress, or the total lack of it, on that front.

Another facet of Netanyahu’s “Second Coming” to Washington was the fact that Secretary Christopher met with him in his hotel, the Mayflower, and not in the Department of State. Protocol reasons? Perhaps. The fact is that in 1992, then-Secretary of State James Baker got fed up with the wild charges being surfaced by a man named Bibi Netanyahu, who then was spokesperson for the Madrid talks. Baker has a short Texas temper and felt Netanyahu was not just being unfair, but was deliberately lying about U.S. intentions. Baker banned him permanently from the Department of State building. Was this hotel meeting Netanyahu’s reminder of who benefits when Israel and U.S. governments clash? American Jews savage U.S. leaders who picks a fight with Israel. Israeli Jews re-elect Israelis leaders who pick a fight with the U.S. The hotel meeting certainly reminded Israeli voters that the Clinton administration had done everything possible to prevent Netanyahu’s re-election.

Still, the shadow boxing that went on during the visit raised faint hopes that a second-term president might not be as patient as a first-term one.

The use of more stick and less carrot with the Israelis has been recommended by both Israeli and American Middle East specialists fed up with the arrogance of the peace negotiators from the right-wing parties in Israel. In fact a new relationship with America’s changeable Middle East protégé might fit well with an Arkansas good-old-boys administration. They may turn out to be natural-born diplomats, if you go by the definition given by an unknown historian years ago: “An ambassador is a man well versed in lying for his country.”