Why is it that the U.S. administration, though clearly disagreeing with Netanyahu's handling of the peace process, refrains from coming out squarely against the Israeli government's views?
This recurring question has no simple answer. There are, of course, the traditional ties between the U.S. and the State of Israel, based on common democratic values, on a shared attachment to the Bible and, hence, on the Jewish people's destiny as the history of the "children of Israel" is being told in the Old Testament. A major factor strengthening these ties is joint strategic and other interests: a U.S. senator once quipped that the yearly grant of $3 billion to Israel is a "real bargain" if one takes into consideration that Israel is the biggest unsinkable aircraft carrier of the U.S. in the Middle East.
But American financial assistance to Israel has lately been losing much of its relative importance. A recent visit of Israel's finance minister (March 1998) to the United States underscored the limitations of America's leverage over Israel. Finance Minister Yaakov Ne'eman proposed a gradual phasing out of U.S. civilian aid to Israel. The details have still to be worked out, but what matters is the principle. The whole scheme would have been unthinkable if Israel's financial dependency on the United States had not been dramatically reduced in recent years. When Israel's gross national product (GNP) did not exceed $15 billion per year, the $3 billion it received annually from the United States represented 20 percent of the GNP, a significant amount. Even then, the U.S.A. rarely took advantage of its financial clout to "convince" Israeli policymakers to heed its views. Today, when Israel's GNP exceeds $65 billion, the $3-billion annual grant amounts to less than 5 percent and the ability of the White House to put pressure on Israel has practically vanished.
Moreover, U.S. arms industries have powerful vested interests in the maintenance of the yearly American military aid ($1.8 billion) to Israel, one of its best clients. One must add the traditionally pro-Israel bias of the American Congress and AI Gore's need for the support - both financial and political - of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, in order to improve his chances of winning the next presidential election. Bearing these factors in mind, one perceives the limits of Clinton's capacity to impose his views on Israel's present government.
In such a situation, even suggesting an American compromise between opposing Israeli and Palestinian positions becomes a Herculean task. Netanyahu succeeded in mobilizing the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations in the United States against any American proposal made publicly. "It's one thing to suggest an American compromise formula privately to Israel's prime minister for consideration, but to make this suggestion publicly is an impermissible form of pressure that shall be opposed by us," said Sam Salberg, chairman of the Presidents Conference, after talking to Netanyahu. Is it surprising that in these circumstances, Martin Indyk, head of the State Department Middle East desk, recently served notice that the United States may well renounce its mediation efforts altogether?
The United States still possesses some margin for maneuvering. During the 1978 Camp David discussions, the negotiations became bogged down at one point by Mr. Menachem Begin's insistence on some fine juridical points. In spite of the objections of his colleagues Ezer Weizman and Moshe Dayan, Begin refused to budge. Carter took aside Begin and his closest assistants and told them bluntly that, if the talks were to fail, he would tell the Congress and the media who was to blame for the failure. Upon resumption of the discussions with Anwar Sadat, Begin dropped his intransigent stance.
The U.S. administration disposes of other weighty arguments. If Clinton really becomes tired of Netanyahu's double-talk and foot-dragging, he may hint to Israel's leaders that the U.S.A. could abandon its automatic veto against any and all resolutions critical of Israel put before the U.N. Security Council. American abstention on Security Council resolutions condemning Israeli policies could have far-reaching consequences, especially if non¬compliance with those resolutions results in the vote of sanctions against the State of Israel. In the meantime, all this today seems extremely unlikely, far¬fetched, almost unthinkable. And if one takes the pain to analyze American Middle East policies over the last thirty years, one cannot but come to the conclusion that the ambiguous U.S. stand on the Palestinian question has been preventing Washington from formulating a clear policy on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
To this very day, the U.S.A. has not recognized the Palestine people's right to national self-determination, to statehood, alongside Israel, in mutually accepted frontiers. American policy on this crucial matter lags behind the stand of almost all its European and Asian allies and facilitates Netanyahu's delaying tactics.
There is a tragic dimension to the present deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. All are aware, including the Israeli government, that the continuation of the impasse may well lead to an explosion in the West Bank and Gaza where Palestinian frustration and despair are building up to a level of volatility endangering the stability of the entire region. Still, not a single Israeli minister, not even Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, whose three-month deadline for an additional Israeli redeployment in the West Bank has long since passed, is willing to confront Netanyahu's immobility and topple his government through resignation.
The issue becomes particularly crucial as Israel's policies of procrastination may eventually put the whole Middle East on fire, thus threatening the major interests of the U.S. and other countries with the disruption of the regular flow of oil to the industrialized world.
Israeli political and military experts are warning that time is rapidly running out - to no avail. Carter knew how to deal with a reluctant Begin at Camp David. Will Clinton be able (and willing) to muster the same political courage when confronted with Netanyahu's stubbornness?