"At this point I don't think he can be taken seriously. He has no ability to do anything about the peace process."
By Lee Hockstader
JERUSALEM In the Middle East, there is a perception though not one universally shared that President Clinton's distractions have crippled U.S. foreign policy.
Some Israelis, and many Palestinians, believe the scandal over Clinton's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky has kept the administration from exercising its considerable influence to extract concessions from Israel to break the 18-month deadlock in the peace process. Such thinking has persisted despite suggestions in recent days that U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross may be close to brokering an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on an additional troop withdrawal from the West Bank.
It has been fueled by the timing of the scandal, which broke in January just as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were in Washington for talks with Clinton. Netanyahu returned to Israel declaring that he had not yielded to U.S. pressure. A short time later, Washington, rebuffed in its attempts to cajole a deal from the two sides, assumed a less aggressive stance in Middle East peacemaking.
"To be successful, the Israeli-Arab peace process needs energetic support from the United States," Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, told the Israeli newspaper Maariv. "Right now the Clinton administration can't grant such support and I doubt the situation will change in the coming months."
Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian lawmaker and political scientist, said, "Before the scandal, at least [Clinton] had some credibility. He could send an envoy or secretary of state and people would take it seriously. At this point I don't think he can be taken seriously. He has no ability to do anything about the peace process. It's not even a realistic option."
Among Palestinians in particular, the Lewinsky affair is a source of conspiracy theories. Many are convinced that Lewinsky is an agent of the Mossad, Israel's spying agency. According to this theory, which is shared by some Palestinians in Arafat's inner circle and nearly everyone on the street, Lewinsky was deployed by the Israelis to ease U.S. pressure on Israel and puncture Clinton's attempts to force Netanyahu into making concessions in the peace process.
Moreover, there is a widely held concern that the White House's preoccupation with Clinton's political fortunes could lead Iraqi President Saddam Hussein or some other Middle Eastern leader to challenge Washington directly, thinking Clinton was too weak to respond effectively.
But the perception that Clinton's domestic troubles are to blame for Washington's apparent inability to break the impasse in the peace process is not universally held in the Middle East. Some analysts note that the peace process already had been frozen for a year before the Lewinsky story broke.
Even before the sex scandal, Netanyahu scored political points at home by showing he could stand up to Washington. He also faced intense political pressure from his rightist coalition allies not to compromise by handing back more of the occupied West Bank to Palestinian control.
Given a choice between defying the United States and risking the breakup of his own coalition, Netanyahu may have continued defying even a politically robust Clinton White House.
"He's torn by these two things," said Gideon Raphael, former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "And which is more important, the good graces of [an American] president who cannot even bark and certainly cannot bite, or the bite of his extreme right wing? His priority is to keep himself in power."
Arafat, too, has been reluctant to bow to U.S. pressure to crack down on terrorist groups operating from within Palestinian-controlled territory, for fear of provoking an open confrontation with his opponents.
Recent history suggests that major advances in Middle Eastern peacemaking are not always or even frequently a result of pressure from Washington. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Israel in 1977 and the Oslo peace accord of 1993 both came as surprises to the United States, although U.S. diplomacy helped to sustain the momentum the region's leaders had initiated.
"The fact that Clinton has become a lame duck, that he's preoccupied and the administration is not focused on foreign policy issues, does not explain why the peace process is stuck," said Yossi Alpher, director of the American Jewish Committee's Israel office. "It only explains why the U.S. has not made a more forceful effort. But there's no evidence that a more forceful effort would have worked."
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