WASHINGTON — 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.
"At least in the near term, people are going to be surprised by Bibi [Netanyahu]," says Robert Satloff of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "He will be more moderate than anyone expects. No Israeli politician is going to end the peace process as we know it."
Yet even with Labor, the coming months would be tough. Under the 1992 Oslo Peace Accords, the most difficult issues - settlements, Jerusalem, water, security, refugees - were put off to be dealt with later as "final status" issues, once confidence had been built. Now those issues are at hand. "The room for creative ambiguity is ending," says one Arab diplomat. "We have real stuff on the table now."
"It isn't just Netanyahu," says Gail Pressberg of Americans for Peace Now in Washington. "It is the hard-liners he will appoint to his cabinet, like Ariel Sharon."
Whether the White House will try to cajole Likud to change is questionable in the eyes of some experts. "Will Clinton have a commitment to the Middle East when it become difficult?" asks one Middle East expert. "I don't see him taking a real lead."
The US approach to the Middle East changed after the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Prior to that, the US had one policy for the Arab world and one for the Israelis. Yet the peace process hammered out by then Secretary of State James Baker in the Gulf war aftermath sought to settle Arab-Israeli disputes - and replace them with a Middle East that was one region, held together by trade and economic growth. Ethnic and religious hostility could be swallowed up by a common market of prosperity and commerce, US officials hoped.
The peace process went into high gear during the Clinton administration. Not only did the White House inherit the pro-reform Labor government. but an unprecedented US solidarity with Israel also resulted just as Tel Aviv decided that Islamic radicalism was the next threat to Israeli security. "Clinton made a fundamental change," says Dr. Satloff. "He made sure there was no daylight between the US and Israel that Arab parties could drive a truck through. We worked together first, then sold it to the Middle East."
Agreements were reached with Chairman Arafat and with King Hussein of Jordan, partly midwifed by Washington.
The only holdout to a new Middle East, in the view of US and Israel, is Syria. Whether Syrian President Hafez al-Assad will want to deal with a harder-line Israeli leader is unknown. It makes Secretary of State Warren Christopher's job harder, analysts say.
"The Palestinian-Israeli relationship is very fragile," says Mideast expert William Quandt. "Like many things in the Middle East right now, it has to get better or it is going to get worse."