NEWS ANALYSIS : Israel’s Toughest Dealings Are With Washington : Mideast: Jerusalem suddenly sees its longtime ally as the biggest bully in peace talks. It accuses Bush Administration of pushing solutions that favor Arabs.
The unexpectedly bitter clash over the date and place for stalled Middle East peace talks to get moving again has put Israel on notice that, at least for the moment, its toughest negotiating partner may not be the Arabs, with whom it has fought several wars, but the United States, its chief ally and benefactor.
During eight months of laborious shuttle diplomacy by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, aimed at getting the Middle East peace talks under way, State Department officials were fond of saying that when Israel and its adversaries got into the same room, they would undergo a “mind-altering experience” that would open vistas of undreamed solutions.
With a month gone since the first round of talks and the next round snagged on issues of place and date, the Arabs seem to have been left out of any mental rearrangements, while minds in Israel and Washington have been altered.
Israel suddenly perceives the Bush Administration as a two-faced bully intent on pushing an unwanted solution onto its unwilling shoulders for the benefit of the Arabs. The Americans suspect that the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir plans to procrastinate and is interested only in public relations and more foreign aid.
The level of mistrust on both sides is generously reflected in the sandbox rhetoric that pervaded the dispute last week. Israeli officials attacked the American decision to begin the talks in Washington on Wednesday as dictatorial and arrogant. One newspaper complained that Washington had spit at Israel.
Politicians bridled at the treatment of Shamir during his recent visit to the White House. Invitations to the Wednesday talks in Washington were sent out before he had a chance to personally argue his case for a different time and place with President Bush.
For its part, the State Department has called Shamir’s request for a delay in restarting the talks “childish.” The negotiations are scheduled to resume, beginning Wednesday, but Israel’s participation is uncertain. Shamir has said his talks team will show up Dec. 9--five days later. His Cabinet is expected to reconsider that delay at its regular meeting today.
The last seven days have been the kind of week that might have been expected between Israel and, say, Syria. Officials and analysts here say that more and sharper disputes are sure to come as procedural issues are left behind and the talks get down to the matter at hand: how to make peace.
Haggling over procedures with Washington delays the inevitable dispute over land that Israel won in the 1967 Middle East War and the question of whether Israel should give up any of it to win recognition and peace treaties with the Arabs. The Bush Administration is clearly eager to get to the nut of the argument.
“Shamir . . . has adopted a strategy of a war of attrition,” Israeli political commentator Nahum Barnea wrote. “Israel seeks to dictate to its enemy--the U.S. Administration--the pace.”
“Basically, Shamir was pushed into negotiations he doesn’t want, and now Washington is playing hardball,” commented Shlomo Avineri, a former Foreign Ministry official in governments headed by the opposition Labor Party. “The Bush people were a little deceptive. They said they were going to be facilitators, and obviously they are going to be more than that.”
The active U.S. role is the main cause for the squirming in Jerusalem. For Shamir, who wanted Washington to take a back seat, the high profile of American involvement was made strikingly clear in the letters of invitation to Wednesday’s talks that Baker sent to Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians.
Baker suggested to Israel and the Palestinians that they begin to arrange Palestinian control over aspects of daily life in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinians should list what activities they want to control and the Israelis which ones they want to give up. Then the two sides should go ahead and work on a transfer schedule.
Baker advised Israel and Syria to exchange questions that are really a single query. Syria to Israel: If we agree to sign a peace treaty, would you withdraw from the Golan Heights? Israel to Syria: What would you give in return for our withdrawal?
For the Lebanese and Israelis, Baker prescribed talks over Jezzine, a strategic crossroads in southern Lebanon controlled by the South Lebanon Army, an Israeli-backed militia. He counseled Jordan and Israel to discuss minor border disputes.
State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler called the content of the letters “nothing more than views and ideas--suggestions.”
In Israel’s view, they were suggestions coming from the diplomatic equivalent of a 400-pound gorilla. “Suggestions? Ha!” a senior Israeli official scoffed. “Who can ignore suggestions from the world’s only superpower?”
The official noted that the Bush Administration may well exercise additional leverage on Israel by withholding support for guarantees on $10 billion Israel wants to borrow as a boost to jobs and housing for new Soviet immigrants. The issue is expected to come up in January after a four-month delay initiated by Bush. “This is a sword hanging over our heads,” the senior official said. “We can’t help but feel that the guarantees issue will be used to pressure us into going where we don’t want to go.”
The outcome Israel hopes to avoid is surrender of land, a keystone of the Bush Administration formula for peace. In his response to Baker, Shamir made it clear that he believes the United States is tilting to the Arabs and that the Arabs would be happy to sit on the sidelines and cheer. “We have reason to believe,” he said, “that the Arabs are not interested in talking to us or in conducting direct negotiations but want to talk with the United States and to try to exert pressure through it.”
The potential scope of American involvement was left in a fog of ambiguity at the opening round of the peace talks in Madrid. As that potential has emerged into the light, debate in Israel has focused on whether the Americans are welcome players or not.
“American proposals before the parties begin to negotiate are far more akin to dictates than suggestions,” declared the liberal Haaretz newspaper in an editorial.
Commentator Barnea, writing in the mass-circulation newspaper Yediot Aharonot, surmised acidly that “it seems (Bush and Baker) see both us and the Arabs as being primitive tribes with a small brain buried somewhere in the stomach.”
Some observers point out that U.S. intervention kept the landmark peace talks with Egypt on track in the late 1970s and that former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy was instrumental in troop disengagements following the 1973 Middle East War.
“If President Bush is not involved, there will be no agreements. The gaps are too large,” declared Aryeh Naor, a former official in Menachem Begin’s government here and now a frequent Shamir critic. “If there are only direct negotiations without mediation, the talks will break down.”
Unlike the Camp David negotiations between Israel and Egypt, there is no prior agreement between any of the adversaries about the general goal of the talks. Egypt wanted the Sinai Peninsula back and was willing to sign a peace treaty to get it. Israel wanted recognition from Egypt, and Israel early on expressed willingness to give up some of the Sinai and later all of it.
No one, except perhaps the Palestinians with their offer of recognition of Israel in return for a state of their own, has proposed such a clear give-and-take, leaving it to Washington not only to mediate but to define the objectives of discussion.
In his closing speech in Madrid, Baker pledged “encouragement, advice and ideas” to the sides in conflict. “Sometimes you will be satisfied with our point of view, " he said. “Sometimes you will feel frustrated.”
Yosef Harish, writing for the conservative Maariv newspaper, expressed the feeling rampant in Shamir’s government: “Until now, it can be said, only Israel has had a reason to feel frustrated.”