For Israel, the pressure has lifted — for now. After weeks of escalating criticism, the Clinton administration has suddenly taken a more benign tack in its dealings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s meetings with Netanyahu and with Palestinian Authority chief Yasir Arafat last week reset the clock for the two leaders to make some fateful decisions — decisions that so far they have studiously avoided.
After seeing Netanyahu in Paris and Arafat in London, Albright said she was recommending they meet individually with President Clinton in Washington sometime next month. No date has been finalized. Calling her talks with the two leaders “substantive and intensive,” Albright nevertheless added, “These are complicated issues, and gaps remain.”
U.S. officials said they hoped that by the time they meet with Clinton, both leaders will have made the decisions Washington seeks. In the meantime U.S. officials have decided to ease up.
“The administration clearly understands that their pushing in recent weeks produced results, and now it’s time to lay off and give Bibi a chance,” said the leader of a major Jewish group who closely follows the peace talks. “They understand very clearly the dangers of backlash, and they haven’t lost track of their primary goal — getting the talks started again.”
But how the two leaders will use the extension Albright has granted remained very much in question.
Over the weekend, a new verbal war broke out between the two Middle East leaders when Netanyahu declared the entire West Bank part of “Israel proper” and rejected calls for a “timeout” in the expansion of Israeli settlements there. Palestinian leaders immediately declared there could be no peace unless Israel withdrew from all of the West Bank land it has controlled since the 1967 Six-Day War.
The prompt outbreak of verbal dueling could augur poorly for the course Washington believes each leader must take. But more optimistically, some observers argued that this initial rhetoric could provide them cover for ultimately taking that track.
The desired actions boil down essentially to a detailed plan for stepped-up security cooperation against terrorism by Arafat and an agreement by Netanyahu to a “substantial and credible” redeployment of Israeli troops on the West Bank, as called for in the interim Oslo Accords.
Albright is also seeking a timeout, or at least a substantial slowdown in West Bank settlement expansion by Israel to facilitate talks on the final status of the territories that Netanyahu himself seeks.
In apparent recognition of the difficulties Netanyahu faces in selling Israel’s end of this equation to his right-wing government, U.S. officials have decided to give him some running room. Albright, who earlier made clear she expected Netanyahu to come to last week’s meeting with concrete proposals for a West Bank troop redeployment, got nothing of the kind. But she nevertheless told a group of American Jewish leaders afterward that she now believes both leaders are “honorably engaged” in the peace process.
Albright also signaled a tougher line with the Palestinians on security.
“She related to us that she told Arafat that he has to develop a systematic approach [to security] that has to be comprehensive and fully implemented, or he can forget about the further redeployments,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, relating a conference call Albright held with the group shortly after her meetings with the two leaders.
In fact, the Central Intelligence Agency, which already has a liaison officer sitting in on coordinating meetings between top security officials of each side, was reported to be mediating a detailed plan that the Palestinians would accept as a specific outline of each side’s security obligations in the coming months.
According to some reports this outline was nearly completed. But Netanyahu told reporters last weekend this was not the case.
Whatever the case, Albright told the Presidents Conference officials that her meetings last week produced a “road map” for the next phase in the troubled negotiations, when they resume in Washington.
The administration hopes the meetings will be preceded by firm Israeli proposals for the next redeployment. At the D.C. meetings, U.S. officials also hope to work out a fast-track timetable for final-status negotiations on the West Bank — to include the status of Jerusalem and control of the land and its resources — and an informal timeout in the expansion of settlements.
The leaders will also discuss the joint security document prepared by the CIA that U.S. officials hope will be ready by then. The CIA will also play an enhanced role as an umpire on the release of suspected terrorists by the Palestinian Authority.
Administration sources confirm that the mood has shifted, despite the escalating rhetoric about the West Bank.
Albright heard the message from Jewish groups that “pressure to get the peace talks going might be acceptable, but only if it’s fair and balanced,” said a Jewish activist closely following the peace talks. “The intensified pressure on the Palestinians is a clear indication they heard that message.”
Mark Rosenblum, political director of Americans for Peace Now, said “The administration sees its strategic interests inextricably connected to the Israeli-Palestinian track. So we can expect positive, continuous intervention on the part of Washington.
“We are seeing a fair and balanced position on the part of the Clinton administration. In doing that, they are giving meaning to the term ‘reciprocity.’ ”
New Church-State Fight Looms
Christian right groups continue shooting in all directions — including at each other.
The latest example: a new legislative initiative by the conservative Family Research Council, which could undercut efforts to pass a school prayer amendment.
The as-yet-undrafted legislation comes from Gary Bauer, executive director of the Family Research Council, a former Reagan administration aide and a man with political ambitions of his own, according to Washington insiders.
In announcing the initiative, Bauer and a coalition of Evangelical leaders blasted what they called a “pervasive problem of judicial tyranny” that prevents Americans from expressing their religious beliefs in the public sphere.
What they had in mind were several recent judicial rulings limiting religious symbols in courts and schools, including the decision barring an Alabama judge from displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom.
Most Jewish groups agreed with that decision, but to Bauer, it was a declaration of war. He is calling for a new “federalism shield to protect the authority of state institutions, such as state courts and public schools, to acknowledge the Creator by, for example, posting the Ten Commandments.”
But Bauer’s initiative may undercut efforts spearheaded by the Christian Coalition to pass a constitutional amendment offered by Rep. Ernest Jim Istook legalizing school prayer.
In their announcement, Bauer’s coalition agreed that amendments “may be necessary in certain instances” — a lukewarm endorsement suggesting that key elements of the Christian Right coalition may de-emphasize the controversial amendment.
But Bauer’s proposal still may represent a significant threat, Jewish activists say.
“We haven’t seen any language, so it’s hard to analyze,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “It looks like this could go considerably further than the Istook amendment by including a wider range of religious conduct in public places. And we have to keep in mind that simple legislation is significantly easier to pass.”
Diplomatic Role for Holocaust Museum
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum isn’t just a static collection of exhibits on the fate of Europe’s Jews during World War II. As the officially designated agency for dealing with Holocaust remembrance around the world, museum officials have considerable clout in negotiating with foreign governments.
That was the story behind the recent agreement by Polish authorities to remove religious symbols, including crosses and stars of David, from the Auschwitz-Birkenau site in Poland.
The American team that negotiated the agreement was headed by Miles Lerman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. That kind of function, which goes well beyond exhibits and displays, is what the museum’s founders had in mind, according to Ralph Grunewald, director of external affairs for the Holocaust Council.
“We consider it very much part of our mandate to protect Holocaust memory around the world,” he said. “Being a guarantor of historic veracity is a critical part of our mandate.”
The fact that the Museum has the imprimatur of the U.S. Government, he said, raises its standing in negotiations with foreign leaders.
After the outcry over the proposed construction of a shopping center across from the Auschwitz site, a coalition headed by the Museum began negotiations with the Polish government over a comprehensive master plan for the site.
Although an initial agreement was ready in March, Grunewald said, it was held up because of the presence of the religious symbols at the Birkenau site and the election of a new Polish government.
“Now that we’ve reached this milestone,” he said, “our hope is to go back and negotiate an urban plan for the ages — a plan that will forever keep the site holy and that will reflect what really happened there.”