WASHINGTON -- American policy-makers swallowed hard yesterday and accepted an Israeli election outcome that may well stall, if not derail, the U.S. drive for a comprehensive Middle East peace this year.
They will have to digest even more disagreeable news if the apparent Israeli winner, Benjamin Netanyahu, holds true to his campaign promises. That's because he would undercut the whole American approach to ending the five-decade Arab-Israeli conflict.
Netanyahu's Likud bloc wants to add tens of thousands more settlers to the West Bank, potentially weakening the political position of Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian authority with his own people.
The United States strongly supports Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that have given increasing amounts of control over the West Bank to Palestinians, and has consistently opposed the expansion of Jewish settlements.
Likud also opposes negotiating with Syria over return of the strategic Golan Heights, seized by Israel during the 1967 war.
Outlining this bleak scenario yesterday, former U.S. envoy to Israel Samuel Lewis offered little hope of progress in peace talks before the U.S. elections, and raised the prospect of real danger to peace in the months ahead.
If there is "another blowup" in Lebanon, Netanyahu may be inclined to launch a "significant" retaliatory operation that could even be directed at Syria, Lewis said.
This would be an unwelcome jolt for a campaigning U.S. president who is struggling to hold together his diplomatic successes in the Balkans and in advancing peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Next month, President Clinton could face another foreign policy setback, when Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin faces his own restive electorate.
Since the 1970s, American administrations have been more comfortable with Labor Party prime ministers than the more brittle, nationalistic leaders of the Likud. And the telegenic Netanyahu has had a particularly rocky relationship with the U.S. government. He was barred from the State Department altogether by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III after he accused the Bush administration of basing its Middle East policy on distortion and lies.
In the months leading to Israel's election, President Clinton appeared to some to overstep the bounds of international discourse, going to what Adam Garfinkle, editor of The National Interest, called "unprecedented" lengths to help re-elect a Labor government.
"Never before in history has a candidate for [Israeli] prime minister come here on an official visit during an election campaign," said Garfinkle, a Middle East scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
Rather than try to pressure the new Israeli government to adopt the American peace strategy, the Clinton administration is more likely to put the peace process on hold and try to develop a good relationship with Netanyahu, according to Lewis, the former envoy.
"I would expect a honeymoon" between Netanyahu and Washington, Lewis said.
President Clinton set the tone for his administration yesterday by finding something positive to say about Netanyahu, and how he would approach peace with the Arabs.
"There has been a difference in what they say their approaches are, but I was actually quite interested in comments that [Netanyahu] made about this, particularly in the last days of the election. I think we have to wait and see," Clinton said. Republican presidential contender Bob Dole issued a statement in Chicago saying, "Many pundits have been quick to point to Benjamin Netanyahu as a 'hard-liner' or a 'hawk.' I would point out, however, that history is filled with examples of so-called 'hawks' being very effective peacemakers and diplomats -- Richard Nixon and China, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat at Camp David and Ronald Reagan and the Cold War."
"I am confident I can work closely with the next Israeli prime minister and that the Clinton administration will continue its close cooperation with Israel," Dole added.
But the deflated mood was evident in what the administration could not say -- that it looked forward to progress on the peace process.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who has made more than 20 trips to the Middle East in hopes of nailing down a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement, put on a brave front by saying, "We of course will work closely with whatever government the Israeli people elect."
Pub Date: 5/31/96