Mid-East: Netanyahu: Why the US can't stand him

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The rift between the US and Israel is deepening in the wake of the crisis in Iraq. President Clinton blames the Israeli Prime Minister for undermining US influence by reneging on the previous Israeli government's deal with the Palestinians. Patrick Cockburn, in Jerusalem, explains why the two allies are at odds and why it matters.

At one moment their planes were within 200 yards of each other at Los Angeles airport but they never met. Bill Clinton is putting real effort into not meeting Benjamin Netanyahu in order to underline his displeasure at the actions of the Israeli Prime Minister. Instead of the American President, Mr Netanyahu had to make do with a talk with Arnold Schwarzenegger, for whom he expressed deep admiration.

These snubs, more blatant by the week, do not go unnoticed by Mr Netanyahu. "Don't you know, there is a Saddam Hussein of the East," he complained privately, speaking of President Clinton's attitude towards him. "And there is me, the Saddam Hussein of the West." In a fit of pique he told his office to stop trying to arrange a meeting with the President.

Irritation in Washington at Mr Netanyahu's deep-freezing of agreements with the Palestinians has been mounting for months. But it is the renewed Iraq crisis, the most serious challenge to the US in Middle East since the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which has convinced Washington in the last few weeks that Israel's defiance is costing it dearly in the Arab world.

The Gulf War left America the predominant power in the region. But when Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, toured the region drumming up support for action against Saddam Hussein this month she encountered an embarrassing silence. The Doha economic conference in Qatar, originally billed as an important summit between Israel and its Arab neighbours, was a flop. Even Kuwait, which only exists now because of the Gulf War, refused to endorse American military action against President Saddam.

Mr Netanyahu blithely says Mr Clinton is being "naive" in holding him responsible for eroding America's alliance with the conservative Arab states.

In words expressed privately, but likely to increase American anger, the Israeli Prime Minister added: "Once the first American tank crosses into Iraq, the Arabs will all join in."

Nobody, apart from Mr Netanyahu (and perhaps not even him), thinks this is true. At the same moment as Mrs Albright was failing to win support for the US in the Gulf, Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi deputy prime minister, was having a more successful tour, culminating in a visit to Damascus, the first time an Iraqi leader has visited Syria's capital in 17 years.

Is the American grip on the Middle East faltering? The policy of so-called "dual-containment" of Iraq and Iran is looking very ragged. After mediating an agreement which led to a return of the US inspectors to Baghdad last week, Russia is once more a power in the region, for the first time since 1990.

But the change can be exaggerated. Moscow wants as much influence as it can get in the Middle East, but not at the price of a confrontation with the US.

Boris Yeltsin's need for American political and financial support is too great. Even Iraq, in its own way, wants an understanding with the US, with whom it was allied during its war against Iran from 1980 to 1988.

It may be that both the US and Israel are surprised by the course of the latest Gulf crisis because, for once, President Saddam has not over- played his hand. "We're just waiting for him to do something stupid so we can whack him," a senior Pentagon official was quoted as saying a fortnight ago. He may do so, but so far, unlike the Gulf crisis in 1990-91, the Iraqi leader has shown surprising flexibility. By allowing UN inspectors looking for his non-conventional weapons to return and to enter his palaces he is denying the US a cause around which to rally support.

Mr Netanyahu may think it is unfair for the US to blame him for its difficulties in winning Arab support against Iraq. But he cannot be surprised that President Clinton does not like him. The American leader made strenuous efforts to keep him out of power in Israel in 1996. Immediately after the bus bombings in Jerusalem last year, Mr Clinton organised a conference of world leaders at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt in support of Shimon Peres, the Israeli prime minister who went on to lose the general election.

Mr Netanyahu presumably thinks that, eventually, he can face down the White House. Between one-quarter and a half of the Democratic Party's campaign funds are estimated to come from the American Jewish community. Aid for Israel was held up twice this year - an unheard of action by Congress - but this was opposed by powerful politicians such as Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House, some of whose largest donors are Jewish right- wingers.

But Israel's Prime Minister may have miscalculated. In the present crisis, Israel is a strategic liability for the US as it tries to retain its hold over the Middle East.

If Washington truly begins to think of Mr Netanyahu as the "Saddam Hussein of the West", then Israel, for the first time, may come under intense pressure from the US to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.