Netanyahus anti-Clinton blitz may backfire

Jewish leaders are worried about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's itinerary during his visit here this week. The prime minister turned down an invitation to a White House peace conference and instead came to Washington after President Clinton left for Europe to fulfill a previously scheduled speaking engagement. But he also plans to conduct a media and political blitz against Clinton administration policy. Jewish leaders fear Netanyahu's actions could turn into a serious political blunder unless the hastily planned meeting with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright results in more than a temporary truce with the administration.

The situation was very fluid as Clinton left for the Group of 8 Economic Summit in England. The White House was trying to conceal its anger and disappointment over the Israeli rejection. At the same time, even supporters of Clinton's peace policy worry that the administration had shot itself in the foot with its heavy-handed moves last week in London.

The notion of making a White House invitation contingent upon acceptance of American terms for redeployment of Israeli forces on the West Bank produced charges of a U.S. "ultimatum" and "imposed solution," and that is hard to defend even for the doves in the Jewish community.

Jewish leaders are increasingly torn. Many are disappointed and angry about what is widely perceived as Netanyahu's full-court stall in the peace process, but the fact is that he does have an American promise — a letter from Clinton's first secretary of state, Warren Christopher — to leave the extent of redeployment solely to Israeli discretion. Given the Jewish anathema for ultimata, the visit could shape up as a rescue mission for Netanyahu, whose support here has been dropping.

The bungled administration push gave the prime minister an opportunity to shift the debate from substantive issues to procedural ones, and he comes out ahead this time. Adding to those blunders, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's endorsement of Palestinian statehood was another tempting target for the Netanyahu machine.

The prime minister and the secretary of state both have an interest in meeting this week. Both have good reason to give the impression that neither side is abandoning the peace process. But the big question is whether any agreement they reach can be translated into progress once Netanyahu returns home to his right-wing Cabinet.

The Clinton administration, repeatedly rebuffed by Netanyahu, is unable to carry out Albright's implied threat of walking away from the peace process. So it is trying to save face by offering Netanyahu two more weeks to find a compromise.

Netanyahu relished the role given him by administration bungling, declaring he was not about to sacrifice Israel's security to satisfy anyone, and his public approval ratings at home climbed to new highs while the Labor opposition continued its bizarre semi-hibernation.

The U.S. administration was correct in assuming that Netanyahu is less popular than the president among American Jews, but it may have failed to understand that does not mean Israel is unpopular, and even Bibi's critics don't want to see Israel treated unfairly. More importantly, Jewish leaders worry about friendly presidents setting precedents that unfriendly ones could abuse, and that is what specific withdrawal plans and deadlines can do.

But Netanyahu runs the risk of overplaying his hand because Clinton retains the confidence of American Jewry.

As popular as Clinton is with American Jews, Netanyahu's good friend Newt Gingrich is unpopular. The speaker's pro-Israel bona fides are solid, but what earns him the mistrust of so many in the Jewish community are his views on most other issues and his allies on the religious right, who are also Netanyahu's friends.

The prime minister's schedule calls for him to begin his congressional meetings with a call on Gingrich, who has been on a roll lately, keeping his promise to give a speech a day ripping into the president for a variety of sins, real and imagined.

While most of those attacks have focused on the president's various sex and campaign finance scandals, Gingrich lashed out last week at Clinton's treatment of Netanyahu, accusing him of "blackmail" and being "pro-Arafat."

Deciding to launch a Washington visit by meeting Clinton's most outspoken foes is nothing new for Netanyahu. The last time he was here, it was the Rev. Jerry Falwell. The prime minister and the preacher used that appearance for a series of attacks on administration policy, to the rousing cheers of the evangelical audience, many of whom believe the Oslo Accords are nothing less than satanic.

That infuriated many in the Jewish community and reinforced the perception among many that Netanyahu prefers the company of right-wing Republicans and the Christian conservatives over most Jews.

Aides report that Netanyahu now admits the Falwell meeting in January was a mistake, and some have counseled him to not go to Washington to lead a media and political blitz against a president who is out of the country.

Bibi's blitz — rallying congressional friends, particularly Gingrich and the Republicans, AIPAC and Christian and Jewish conservatives against the Clinton administration — will give him short-term gratification. But it could do long-term damage to Israel's relations with the administration and, more importantly, with the American Jewish community.

Instead of going on a slash-and-burn mission, Netanyahu should begin building bridges to the majority of Jews who love Israel, care deeply about its welfare and want to see it make a just and lasting peace with its neighbors, but who harbor serious doubts as to whether this prime minister is capable of — or even interested in — leading Israel in that direction.

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.