Israeli premiers view of U.S. Jews could bring trouble

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could get his wish to accelerate the final-status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but he may want to recall the old aphorism: Be careful what you wish for because it might come true.

Several months ago Netanyahu called for fast-tracking talks with the Palestinians on the toughest issues that were deliberately left to the end by Oslo's architects, rather than let the peace process drag on from crisis to crisis.

Trust and confidence between the two peace partners have so thoroughly deteriorated that each party's every move and pronouncement is eyed with the deepest suspicion by the other. So it was no surprise that Arafat adamantly rejected Netanyahu's proposal, fearing the prime minister would use the new forum to avoid adhering to previous commitments, particularly the three-phase redeployment of Israeli troops in the West Bank.

Israelis and Palestinians have been dealing with the relatively easy issues for the past 3-1/2 years, putting off the deal-makers and -breakers like Jerusalem, settlements, refugees, borders, sovereignty and water. The Oslo Accords envisioned devoting at least two years to those issues, but Netanyahu has proposed condensing it to six months.

The Clinton administration was initially reluctant but agreed with Netanyahu after showing that it clearly expects continued implementation of the interim-agreement provisions.

Much must be done before that phase can begin. Madeleine Albright will soon make her maiden voyage to the Middle East as secretary of state to talk with Netanyahu and Arafat about putting the peace process back on track — talks have been suspended since March, when Israel began construction of the Har Homa housing project in southern Jerusalem.

Nerves have been frayed, there have been sporadic outbreaks of violence and the entire process threatens to collapse. A twin suicide bombing last month that left 14 Israelis dead and 170 wounded in Jerusalem prompted Netanyahu to impose stiff sanctions on the Palestinians to pressure Arafat to resume full security cooperation .

Before making her trip to the region, which has slipped from next week to sometime next month, Albright wants "sustained and comprehensive cooperation on security" from Arafat, said her spokesman.

So far, Arafat has taken no action on the central Israeli and American demand that he crack down on Islamic extremists.

Instead, he has been screaming for American pressure on Israel to lift the sanctions and to press the Netanyahu government for further political concessions.

President Clinton, Albright and other American officials have repeatedly made it clear that progress on security issues must come first.

U.S. special envoy Dennis Ross was able to get security officials from both sides talking, with a CIA referee, but efforts have produced no tangible results, according to administration sources.

"And frankly, we've told [Arafat] that his failure to do so only harms himself and harms the people in those areas" under Palestinian jurisdiction, said James Rubin, Albright's spokesman.

Once security measures are in place and working, the Clinton administration will press Netanyahu to lift the sanctions; it is already pushing him to unblock the transfer of tax revenues owed to the Palestinian Authority. He has eased some travel and trade restrictions, but most remain in place.

Only then will negotiations be able to move to the political issues.

If and when the parties agree to begin final-status talks, relations between Israel and the United States will be tested as never before, according to Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace. For the first time in 30 years, the two allies will find themselves "potentially in conflict" because of their fundamental disagreements on the core issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"They disagree on the location of Israel's capital, the legality and perhaps even the right of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, and they may disagree over Israel's border, which is the main unresolved issue of the conflict," Satloff said. "These are not typical items of disagreement between allies."

Satloff said it is "extremely important" that before these issues "infect the relationship with discord," both countries' leaderships must "reach an understanding, not necessarily agreement on the substance, but an understanding of how to deal with these questions in the negotiations."

Don't expect any surprises from Albright. She will be looking for coordination, not confrontation with the Israelis. Any talk of "a Baker-Bush approach" is "misplaced," said her aide. "That's not what we're about here."

He was referring to the acerbic relations between the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and the administration of President George Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III. Under their stewardship of foreign policy, bilateral relations plunged to new lows.

The Clinton administration is keenly aware of the political damage that such confrontations can cause, and it is working with friends in the American Jewish community to assure the support of its core constituency as it moves into the next phase of negotiations. If there is to be a clash, insiders say, it will have to come from Netanyahu.

A recent American visitor reported that a senior Netanyahu aide said he is confident the vast majority of American Jews are to the right of the prime minister and not only share his positions, but also want him to take a tougher stance. If Netanyahu believes that, said the visitor, a man with close ties to the American Jewish community, the Israeli government is blindly headed for trouble.

Douglas M. Bloomfield

Douglas M. Bloomfield is the president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C., lobbying and consulting firm. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.