Lawrence Cohler-Esses is a staff writer. James D. Besser is Washington correspondent.
Scathed but far from destroyed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now has the same secret weapon that has long served Palestinian chief Yasir Arafat so well when dealing with Washington: his weakness.
After the resignation this week of his foreign minister, David Levy, Netanyahu now confronts the possibility of U.S. diplomatic pressure at a Jan. 20 summit with President Clinton. But thanks to the departure of Levy and his five-member Gesher Party from his coalition, Netanyahu will fly to Washington with one more arrow in his quiver: a slim one-vote majority in Israel’s parliament.
Facing unprecedented challenges to his leadership from his own cabinet — which is considered more right wing with the moderate Levy’s departure — Netanyahu sought this week to turn this domestic weakness into a foreign policy strength.
Israeli officials and American Jewish leaders of various political stripes say this new situation is causing the administration to recalibrate just how much to press Israel on its central demand: that Netanyahu come to the summit with a “significant and credible” plan for redeploying Israeli troops on the West Bank.
Levy sparked a political crisis when he resigned Sunday in a bitter dispute with Netanyahu over the government budget. The surprise move provoked fervered speculation that the budget would fail to pass, triggering the fall of the government. But the budget passed Monday, 58-52.
Now, though Israel must redeploy in the West Bank under the interim Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, “There’s a growing recognition of the prime minister’s political problems,” said an Israeli official, “and that whatever he comes [to Washington] with, the Palestinians will reject. There’s a growing feeling in the administration that it may be better to leave things more open-ended.”
U.S. officials are said to fear that if their pressure causes Netanyahu to fall, Washington, rather than an unpopular prime minister, will be the target of a backlash. Analysts agree there would be no guarantee of a more dovish government if new elections were held under such conditions.
But James Zogby, executive director of the Arab American Institute, said the message he picked up when he met last week with senior officials of the National Security Council — though admittedly before Levy’s resignation — was markedly different.
“This is not about saving [Netanyahu’s] neck,” he said. “It’s about saving the peace process. The U.S. has a lot of heavy lifting to do here, and he does not have a whole lot of sympathy. The question is not about being blamed [in a possible anti-U.S. backlash], but what’s going to make this work?”
The administration has been expecting Netanyahu to arrive in Washington this month with a clear map for redeployment ever since he failed to come up with one at a December meeting in Paris with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. On Jan. 22, just after his meeting with Netanyahu, Clinton will meet Arafat to work on the Palestinians’ obligations for security cooperation with Israel. Clinton at this meeting is expected to present Israeli proposals along with U.S. ideas to bridge the widely expected Israeli-Palestinian gaps.
But with Netanyahu’s Knesset majority cut so narrowly, administration officials this week were said to be quietly debating just how much force to put behind their demands on Israel. On Monday, even as Netanyahu’s truncated coalition succeeded in passing the government’s $57.5 billion budget without Levy’s backing, U.S. Mideast envoy Dennis Ross flew to Jerusalem for preliminary meetings with the prime minister.
While there, Ross also made an on-site assessment of Netanyahu’s political situation. That assessment will play a key role in the administration’s decision on what approach to take.
According to several Israeli and American Jewish officials, the administration already has shelved its demand that Netanyahu commit now to returning a specific percentage of West Bank land to Palestinian control. Reports earlier put the U.S. demand at 12 to 15 percent. Israeli newspapers reported Wednesday that in the meeting with Ross, the prime minister was said to be offering an 8 percent pullback.
The Israeli and American Jewish officials said Washington may accede to Netanyahu’s insistence on withholding a precise map and timetable for now and instead will strive to reach an agreement with him on the specific obligations the Palestinians must first meet on security cooperation before a redeployment begins.
The U.S. will also try to bring the two sides together to resume negotiations on the final status of the West Bank, but in exchange it may insist Israel agree to a “timeout” on its expansion of West Bank settlements during a trial period of Palestinian commitments.
This condition the Netanyahu government has so far staunchly refused.
“It’s unlikely Mr. Netanyahu can now come to Washington with a specific plan,” said Richard Haass, a former National Security Council official during the Bush administration and now director of the foreign studies program at the Brookings Institution. “My hunch is that the administration will show some understanding of his problems but ask him to try harder. They probably don’t see a lot of good options right now.”
Ironically, Netanyahu will arrive in the U.S. seeking an understanding on Palestinian security obligations at a time when most observers agree with U.S. intelligence assessments that the Palestinians have been doing better.
“Are there improvements?” asked Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Yes. But it goes in waves. Have they helped to staunch some recent terrorist attempts? Yes. But have they met the criteria [they agreed to in previous agreements]? No. So Israel wants a document that has specific criteria to measure compliance.”
In fact, with CIA mediation, Israeli and Palestinian security officials reached agreement on such a document late last month. But Netanyahu rejected the pact when it was brought to him by his security chiefs. His office later published its own more stringent list, citing the agreements by the Palestinians.
Efforts to broker a binding list of specifics on these security criteria that all sides agree on may take up much administration energy in the days leading up to the summit and, if necessary, at the summit itself.
Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that though the aborted agreement is now effectively dead, “The themes of that document are ones that will probably emerge in the negotiations, and there might be another document.”
In another irony, it is Arafat who often has benefited from U.S. indulgence in the past based on his perceived political weakness. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when he was at his weakest, U.S. officials confronted the prospect of a far more violent and fanatic wave of radical Islamists taking his place, and cajoled Israel into the Madrid peace conference with Arafat’s West Bank followers.
Later, under the Labor Party government of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, Israel saw in Arafat’s continuing weakness an opportunity, and reached the direct understanding with him that became the Oslo peace process.
Arafat’s failure since then to fulfill various aspects of the interim Oslo Accords has received a degree of understanding at various times from U.S. and Israeli officials, including those in the current, more hard-line Likud government. Even Likud officials, for example, admit they have not pushed Arafat as hard as they could on extraditing terrorists to Israel because they understand that if he simply handed them over, the radical Muslim group Hamas could ignite popular opinion against him.
Netanyahu now has included a demand that the Palestinians agree to such extraditions in the list he plans to bring to Washington. Most observers see little chance Arafat will accept this. But some hope he may agree for the first time to seriously enforce the alternative option available under previous agreements: to put on trial and jail for long terms terrorists within the Palestinian Authority. Until now, many have been released after serving only light sentences.
The State Department this week called on Arafat to create a “credible, sustainable, comprehensive, 24-hour-a-day, 7-days-a-week, 52-weeks-a-year security package.” The escalating pressure on the Palestinians, analysts in Washington say, is designed to address Netanyahu’s insistence that any new withdrawal can take place only after Arafat meets rigid new conditions during a five-month interim period.
On Monday, both the State Department and White House insisted that the Levy resignation would not change their approach to the negotiations.
“Our timetable, our sense of urgency and our focus on substance remain unchanged,” said State Department spokesman James Rubin.
According to Hoenlein, Levy’s departure may affect the Netanyahu government’s approach “more in terms of politics than necessarily policy.”
The administration, he insisted, is “100 percent convinced Netanyahu is committed to the redeployment. It’s not a question of whether but what [Israel] will do — and whether it will be sufficient to satisfy the other parties.”
But in his resignation speech Levy, who had threatened to resign on eight earlier occasions, sharply questioned the government’s commitment to the peace process.
Citing this and his contention that the government had failed in its obligation to helping the poor, whom he has championed, Levy vowed, “There comes a time when one must stand up and make a clear, unequivocal statement. I am fed up.”