Washington Watch: Those meddlesome politicians

Charges of US meddling in local politics sound strange coming from the camp of a serial meddler.

douglas bloomfield224.88 (photo credit: )
douglas bloomfield224.88
(photo credit: )
The Washington Times ran an article last week accusing the Obama administration of meddling in Israeli politics by "complaining" that it would be difficult to advance the peace process if Benyamin Netanyahu, who opposes the Annapolis peace talks and the return of the Golan Heights, becomes Israel's next prime minister. The article offered no evidence of the "meddling," only anonymous "administration officials... complaining about the prospect of working" with Netanyahu. But if history is any indicator, the charge is plausible, judging by the experiences of two Clinton administration diplomats who knew Bibi well. Top US Mideast peace envoy Dennis Ross has called Netanyahu "nearly insufferable," scheming and untrustworthy, and former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk said that as opposition leader Netanyahu lobbied Congress against the peace polices of both the Israeli and American governments. The Orthodox Union sought to block peace envoy Sen. George Mitchell's return to the Mideast this week because it smacks of meddling in Israeli politics at a time when Netanyahu is trying to form a government. Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Lieberman, who campaigned so hard against Barack Obama, saying he would be bad for Israel, was in Jerusalem endorsing the Likud leader. "I have no doubt that with Netanyahu's government here we will have good and positive relations with the Obama administration," said Lieberman, whose own views are closer to Bibi's than to his rival, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni. Charges of American meddling in Israeli politics have a hollow ring coming from the camp of a serial meddler like Netanyahu. As opposition leader in the 1990s he conspired with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, particularly Speaker Newt Gingrich, as well as leaders of the evangelical movement and some major Jewish organizations to derail the peace policies of the Clinton administration as well as the governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. BUT MEDDLING is a busy two-way street. When the Knesset was considering changing the law defining "Who is a Jew," a planeload of high-powered American Jewish leaders jetted to Jerusalem to kill the bill. Since so many of them and their children had intermarried, they had a very personal stake in the outcome. Among the most ludicrous examples was the spectacle of an AIPAC president shuttling between Labor and Likud leaders, Peres and Yitzhak Shamir, following the 1988 election thinking he was negotiating a unity government; he even wrote a joint policy declaration for them to issue. Privately both sides told visitors they thought the self-anointed power broker was chutzpadik and a joke. In the mid-1990s, when Netanyahu was the opposition leader, a trio of Likud operatives - Yossi Ben Aharon, the former chief of staff to Prime Minister Shamir; Yoram Ettinger, a former Embassy congressional liaison, and Yigal Carmon, a former Shamir advisor - became Washington fixtures lobbying against the US and Israeli governments' peace policies. A Likud Knesset member called their lobbying "unacceptable and harmful to the state of Israel." Even Aipac, which had worked closely with the Ben Aharon and Ettinger in the past, called their meddling "extremely damaging" and "a crude attempt to sabotage the peace process." MOST MEDDLING efforts fail, but others succeed - although even successful meddling can backfire. That was the case when President George H. W. Bush and his secretary of state, James A. Baker III, blocked housing loan guarantees for Israel in an effort to embarrass then-Prime Minister Shamir and affect his 1992 reelection bid. Shamir lost, in no small part for his failed stewardship of the American portfolio, but it also backfired on Bush by driving many Jewish voters away from the Republican party, which still has not recovered. Jewish support for the GOP presidential ticket that year dropped from 33 percent to 11 percent, and in 2008 was only 22 percent. One of the most blatant examples of meddling occurred last year when former Israeli ambassador to Washington Danny Ayalon published an op-ed article that was seen as reinforcing the Republican campaign - which quoted the piece extensively - to brand Barack Obama as a danger to Israel. Even Ayalon's successor, Amb. Salai Meridor, denounced it. Denials that he was trying to intervene in the US campaign fell flat. Later Ayalon joined the extreme right wing Yisrael Beiteinu party of Avigdor Lieberman and was elected to Knesset this month. The Israeli right isn't the only meddler. On the left, then-Foreign Minister Peres and his aides lobbied their friends in Washington to lean on PM Shamir to accept an agreement Peres had secretly negotiated with Jordan behind Shamir's back. Netanyahu will probably be the next prime minister, although it is unclear whether he'll have a narrow far right cabinet as it now appears, or he can enlist the centrist Kadima. In any event, Washington will be watching closely to see whether, as his supporters say, he has learned and matured from his previous failures. His old allies - House Republicans, evangelicals and right wing Jewish groups - are no longer in power at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and unlikely to want to go to the barricades for him in a fight with a president who won nearly three times more Jewish votes in his last election than Netanyahu did.