Washington-Tel Aviv Relations Turn Awkward Corner after Israeli Vote

Article excerpt

Voters of the country most ardently supported abroad by the White House may have handed President Clinton a major foreign policy setback.

Even if conservative Likud candidate Binyamin Netanyahu, who stands to be the next prime minister of Israel at this writing, should lose to Shimon Peres in absentee ballots, the ambivalent and divided voice of the Israeli electorate greatly complicates US attempts to broker future peace deals in the Mideast.

The evident nod to Mr. Netanyahu, who opposes elements of the Arab-Israeli peace deals shepherded by Washington, stunned White House and State Department officials. They have watched over the past two months as the breezy 20 percent margin of their closest ally in the Middle East, Mr. Peres, collapsed into a cliffhanger that seems to have the wrong ending, as far as they're concerned. In recent weeks, in fact, some State Department officials noted off the record that the White House had done little to plan for a Likud victory.

Since last year, the White House has been lauding a series of foreign policy successes, even while recently looking with trepidation at a close election facing another key ally, Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The administration hoped a Peres victory would add to the laurels. Now it must reconsider its strategy both for Israel and the Arab world, particularly Syria, which the White House considers central to a larger peace in the region.

"There is a great deal of edginess around here because this {Israeli vote} comes on the eve of the Russian elections," says a National Security Council staff member. "Haiti is shaky. I mean, we're wondering if 1996 is the year when democracy will take two huge steps backward."

As much as was diplomatically possible, President Clinton backed Peres, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the 1993 peace deal on the White House lawn. Clinton visited Israel after a recent series of terrorist bombings, delivered $50 million in high-tech aid, signed joint treaties, and in recent weeks gave speeches that defined perhaps Israel's most important election ever as a stark choice - for or against a peace process that the US and Israel have carefully cultivated.

"It was about as close to first-name diplomacy as it gets," says one Washington-based Middle East expert.

Netanyahu, by contrast, has had little contact with Washington. His controversial policies of expanding settlement activity in the West Bank and freezing the Oslo peace accords to give Palestinians only the 5 percent of the occupied territories clash with those of Labor and the White House. Should Netanyahu win, Clinton is expected to play down the differences. US officials do not know yet how much of Netanyahu's platform is rhetoric, and how much he will stick to. …