JERUSALEM -- President Clinton heads for the Mideast today for a visit that was to have celebrated the accords he wrenched from the Israelis and Palestinians in Maryland in October. But now he may be working hard just to save the process from collapse.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is mired in a domestic political fight that could spell the end of his 2 1/2 years in office. Palestinian mobs have been rioting for a week -- and their leader, Yasser Arafat, hasn't even blinked.
The Israelis insist that the Palestinian National Council, the parliament of the Palestine Liberation Organization, must take a vote to remove clauses in the charter that call for the destruction of Israel.
No vote, says Netanyahu, no additional land for the Palestinians.
Netanyahu has ordered the army to crack down on Palestinians protesting over their family members still held in Israeli jails, while the leader of the Palestinian parliament has encouraged demonstrators to keep up the pressure.
Despite Clinton's popularity among Israelis, the president was told by several Israeli ministers -- and not subtly -- to stay home.
When Clinton agreed during the Wye talks in October to travel here, he was to usher in the next phase of the land-for-security peace deal in which Netanyahu agreed to give more of the biblical land of Israel, much against the will of many of his hard-line supporters.
Clinton's trip will also provide an important boost for Arafat, because it will be the first time that a U.S. president has visited the Gaza Strip, part of Arafat's Palestinian-state-in-waiting.
Surrounded by U.S. allies in Israel, Jordan and Egypt, Arafat recognizes that over the long term, "he cannot but be an ally of the United States," says Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Now, however, the Wye agreement is in a state of suspension, and the "peace partners" are at loggerheads. So Clinton is being pulled into the position once again of trying to rescue the process.
One task is to make sure that the Palestinian National Council action to remove offensive sections of its charter is credible with the Israelis.
"We expect that the Israelis will find these procedures satisfactory," said the president's national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger -- even though the Palestinians say they won't take a formal vote, as the Israelis insist they must.
Clinton is also expected to try to resolve a bitter dispute over the agreed-to prisoner releases.
Palestinians were expecting "political prisoners" to be freed. But Netanyahu refuses to release people he says are terrorists with blood on their hands and has instead freed some common criminals. The dispute has fired Palestinian rage.
"I do think that it's important here for us to be able to help them resolve this sensitive issue through the proper channels," Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said. Clinton also hopes to hold a three-way meeting with Netanyahu and Arafat.
In preparing to face two populations obsessed with symbols, the White House has bent over backward to achieve balance.
The president's jumbo jet won't land at the new Gaza airport -- something Israelis feared would seem to confer too much sovereignty on the Palestinians. But he will land there by helicopter and tour the area with Arafat.
He will join in lighting the menorah at the home of Israeli President Ezer Weizman to mark Hanukkah. He will visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where Christ was born, and he will go to Masada, the site where Jewish zealots committed suicide rather than face enslavement by the Romans. He will also pay tribute to Islam in some fashion.
A day before addressing the Palestinian National Council, he will address the Israeli people. He will also visit the grave of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The posters of Clinton that have appeared here in recent days reflect the way his visit is being perceived. In the Gaza Strip, a handsome, presidential Clinton is shown. In Jerusalem, posters feature Clinton in an Arab headdress and the words, "Go home."
Netanyahu's political problems this week -- a right-wing backlash against the Wye agreement -- changed the import of Clinton's visit, for the prime minister and the president.
"Between the time he agreed to make this visit and now, the situation has shifted. He's two weeks too late or three weeks too early," said Barry Rubin, an Israeli political analyst. "He's not going to broker some deal, because the differences are too far apart."
Hard-liners in Netanyahu's coalition government who oppose the Wye agreement have mounted an aggressive campaign against the prime minister since the deal was signed Oct. 23. He faces a no-confidence vote in parliament but managed -- barely -- to put it off until after Clinton leaves.
His political problems have hardened his already strong stance on Palestinian compliance with the Wye accords. Netanyahu's office has been documenting the Palestinian infractions -- among them, the continued incitement and violent clashes of this week, and reiteration of their intent to declare a Palestinian state.
"One can say the Palestinians with their own hands are bringing about the collapse of the agreement,'" Netanyahu told Israel Radio on Thursday. "If you expect that we will hand over more territories when all these things are happening in front of our eyes, I can tell you, don't expect it. Such a thing will not happen."
The president's visit to Gaza and his address to the Palestinians could further complicate Netanyahu's political troubles, according to some analysts.
"Clinton enhancing Palestinian prestige will emphasize to the Israeli hard-liners the degree to which Netanyahu has betrayed them. It alienates his hard-line supporters from him. And he has to do the impossible -- bite the hand that feeds him," said Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American and Middle East analyst at the University of Chicago.
Many Palestinians question how the trip might benefit them.
"Washington is entering a new chapter with the relations with the Palestinians. It has been always Washington emphasizing Israel's security," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, a Palestinian analyst. "This is the challenge to deal with the Palestinians directly, without the approval or encouragement of the Israelis. This is an indirect message to put pressure on the Israelis."
But not everyone is as pessimistic.
"Don't underestimate what the presence of the president of the United States -- especially Clinton, who can be charming and persuasive -- can do," said Philip Mattar, executive director of the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington.
"Bill Clinton is really great at these trips. Look at what he's done in China and all these places people said it was a mistake to visit. He says the right things, and he'll say them to the Israelis because he believes them."
Pub Date: 12/12/98