PARIS -- Benjamin Netanyahu can afford to regard his trips to Washington with cynicism, since he is rightly confident that nothing of much consequence will come of them. He will be offered earnest advice, which he can safely ignore.
President Clinton is indebted politically to American Jewish voters, but so have been some of his predecessors. Much more important is that he apparently has no independent view of what can or should come out of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations -- the peace process, as it probably no longer should be called.
His administration is probably incapable of establishing a firm position on the fundamental issues of the conflict. Too many pressures act on it, and any clear stand carries more political negatives than pluses for the White House, the National Security Council and the State Department.
The basic question Mr. Netanyahu is deciding by making "facts" on the ground is whether Jerusalem will be a Palestinian capital, as well as Israel's capital.
Israel's official position is that Jerusalem is the unique and undivided capital of the Jewish state, but in the past, there has been some room for accommodation of the Palestinian demand that it be theirs, too, and some assurance of established Palestinian interests in the city.
Two Israeli human-rights groups last week published a report on what they call "the silent expulsion of East Jerusalem Palestinians," accomplished by administrative restrictions, expropriations of property and withdrawal of residence permits even from some Palestinians whose families have lived in Jerusalem for generations.
Official Israeli policy, set in 1972, is to keep the Arab population of Jerusalem under 26.5 percent of the total.
The international community does not, in general, recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital; nor does the United States, which has kept its embassy in Tel Aviv. Whether it will continue to do so is another matter. Congress has already resolved that it should not.
Holy to three religions
There are, however, Christian, as well as Muslim, pressures in support of the principle of Jerusalem as the holy city of three religions, with some kind of international status or protection.
Votes therefore can be lost by any American decision on Jerusalem. As some Arab states have influence in Washington, too, the U.S. government tries to appease all sides while avoiding commitments that could prove embarrassing in the long run.
Mr. Netanyahu fully understands the nuances of this situation. Building Jewish apartments in a historically Arab part of East Jerusalem challenges America's proclaimed impartiality and demonstrates Arab weakness.
Two American vetoes of U.N. resolutions condemning that construction show that Israel's prime minister acts with impunity -- the United States will not, or cannot, stop him. The Bush administration made trouble for Israel. Mr. Clinton will not.
Mr. Netanyahu wants to discredit America's claim to be the impartial interlocutor between Israelis and Palestinians. He wants the Palestinians, and the Arabs generally, to understand that he is in control of what happens and that they have no effective international recourse against what Israel chooses to do.
This leaves Israel-Arab relations in their worst condition since Anwar al-Sadat's trip to Israel in 1977.
Mr. Netanyahu's program for the Palestinians is limited local autonomy, without national sovereignty, in enclaves separated from one another by Israeli-controlled routes and settlements, under overall Israeli domination. The Palestinians call this a Bantustan solution.
While they can
But it is all Mr. Netanyahu's government offers, and he would say to them that they had better take it while they can.
The Palestinians and the Arab governments have little to offer in opposition, short of another Arab-Israeli war or a permanent Palestinian guerrilla struggle against Israel. That would strengthen the intransigent and apocalyptic right in Israeli politics, which seeks an Arab-free Greater Israel.
The remaining obstacle is the Jewish diaspora, if it were to support those forces inside Israel who dread the country's transformation into an apartheid state. Jewish communities abroad -- in the United States, but also in Europe -- are themselves deeply divided on the policies of the Netanyahu government.
Understandably, and no doubt rightly, Jews abroad have in the past been extremely reluctant to try to influence Israel's decisions, made by the governments elected by Israel's own citizens.
Since the diaspora is predominantly reform or conservative in its religious attachments, it is also preoccupied by the new attempts by certain orthodox rabbis in Israel to extend their control over the grant of Israeli citizenship and the application of the "right to return." That is a further complication of the situation.
Many friends of Israel have also relied on the United States as a check to Israeli extremism, and as an effective mediator between Israel and the Palestinians and Arab governments.
But they can't rely on Washington now. Israeli and diaspora liberals have long thought that the United States would stop Mr. Netanyahu before he went too far. It hasn't; it almost certainly won't. The Israeli opposition, and its friends in the diaspora, are on their own.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 4/15/97