Clinton, Israeli premier need to talk tough on peace

After the "unwelcome" sign was hung out the last time he tried to come to Washington, a battered, besieged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn't want to ride back into town later this month without heavy reinforcements for his encounter with President Clinton.

But it looks like Bibi's cavalry won't be on Capitol Hill when he is due here in two weeks. Clinton has invited him to meet at the White House on Jan. 20, a week before Congress returns from its extended winter break. However, Netanyahu may try to use his present government crisis to delay the encounter.

When they do meet, the two men will have some tough talk in store about the future of the peace process. Clinton wants to know just what Netanyahu has in mind for the next stage of West Bank redeployment, and he plans to press for a time-out on settlement construction.

The peace process lost its leading supporter in the Israeli Cabinet with the resignation of Foreign Minister David Levy, which leaves the Netanyahu government with a single-vote majority.

A budget crisis prompted Levy's resignation and the subsequent Cabinet crisis, but the peace process figured in the calculations of some right-wing members of the Netanyahu coalition, who made no secret of their desire to prolong the budget impasse in order to block any movement on the peace front.

At least a dozen right-wing Knesset members have threatened to bring down the government if Netanyahu actually goes ahead with any further West Bank withdrawals. Meanwhile, they are betting the longer they delay, the better the chances are an act of Palestinian violence will give Netanyahu cause to cancel the move.

Levy's resignation may take away the Cabinet's lonesome dove, but it will have little impact on policy toward the United States because Netanyahu kept that portfolio for himself. Capitol Hill has always been friendly territory for Netanyahu, and he stays in close contact with friends there.

But sources report the old enthusiasm for him is missing.

There is growing unhappiness with what many lawmakers here view as the prime minister's foot-dragging in the peace process, but don't look for any members of Congress to say so publicly, well placed Congressional sources advise. "Any flack he gets up here will be behind closed doors," said a veteran pro-Israel staffer. "No one is willing to do it in public because they can't be sure of the reaction from the Jews."

Said a Jewish aide: "Most members want the peace process to go forward and they're p—-d at Bibi, but they don't want to risk alienating any Jewish constituents or the pro-Israel PACs and they don't want the right wing attacking them, so they're happy to let Clinton play the bad cop for them and take all the heat."

Netanyahu's most outspoken congressional supporters tend to be among the younger, conservative Republicans. They were also among the harshest critics of the peace policies of the Rabin-Peres governments. Many are prodded along by small but highly vocal right-wing opponents of the Oslo Accords like Americans for a Safe Israel, Zionist Organization of America and others funded by such critics as bingo magnate Irving Moskowitz.

These legislators are generally out of step with the mainstream of the Jewish community on domestic policy as well as the peace process, which continues to have the support of most American Jews and Israelis, albeit with waning enthusiasm.

Veteran pro-Israel activists privately confess it is difficult to tell whether these outspoken Arafat-bashers are more motivated by concern for Israel's safety or an opportunity to score political points against Clinton and the Democrats.

"As relative newcomers, they've had no painful decisions to make, no close votes on the House floor on aid cuts, no going up against a popular president of their own party," said a congressional source. "Palestinian bashing is low risk for these guys. Everyone likes to hook up with Israel because it's good for their careers, good for their fund-raising and good foreign policy."

A senior Netanyahu aide admitted, "He'll feel more comfortable coming when Congress is in session." Netanyahu's supporters feel it was no accident that the administration waited until Congress adjourned last fall before increasing the pressure, and then, said one Israeli official, the prime minister "took a pounding."

Last summer and early autumn, as the peace process continued to deteriorate, the administration took political soundings that convinced it the Jewish community would tolerate increased pressure on Netanyahu as long as it would be perceived as reasonable, and equal or greater pressure was applied to the Palestinians. That led to the presidential decision not to meet with Netanyahu when he was in the United States in November, a move that raised only minor objections.

The first order of business in the Oval Office has to be making shalom between the two leaders.

President Clinton needs to use all of his interpersonal skills to reinforce the important decisions Netanyahu has made that advanced the peace process, and to discourage the prime minister's tendency to counter those moves with concessions to the right wing that reverse any progress he has achieved.

On Jan. 20, the first anniversary of Clinton's second inauguration, the president and the prime minister will have an opportunity for a new beginning in their personal relationship and in the peace process.

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.