The Palestinian position is that Israel should implement the Oslo agreement under which Israeli forces would withdraw from most of the West Bank which it occupied in 1967. This is the land-for-peace accord, reached in Oslo five years ago, signed on the White House lawn. None of this interested the senators. They simply asked Mr Clinton "to quietly urge the Palestinians to accept Israel's latest offer and move to final status negotiations". Given that Israel is offering the Palestinians just 9 per cent of the West Bank, the senate was in effect calling for the President to dump Oslo.
There is no mystery about the letter. It was pushed by the Israeli government, acting through the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac). This body is probably now at the height of its influence. But its ability to sway Congress and the White House goes back some 20 years. "Never offend three lobbies," runs an old Washington political adage, "the tobacco industry, the National Rifle Association and Aipac".
The lobby is criticised more in the Israeli press than in the US. "Aipac activists manage to enlist potential political candidates long before they reach Washington and then knock them out with Zionism," writes the daily Ma'ariv newspaper. "Some of them can't even find Israel on the map and they don't know a thing about the Middle Eastern conflict, but they understand they need money, a lot of money, to be elected to Congress."
There is an ironic aspect to the senators' action as polls show that most of the six million American Jews support pressure on Israel over Oslo. But the militants and the money in the American Jewish community come increasingly from the religious and nationalist far-right. Three- quarters of American Jews go to the synagogue infrequently and intermarry with non-Jews, but the activists come largely from the 1-to-1.5 million who take their religious identity more seriously.
The American Jewish community has always been politically active. It has been a pillar of the Democratic Party since before the civil war. It voted 82 per cent for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and 90 per cent for Lyndon Johnson in 1964. JJ Goldberg in his authoritative book Jewish Power, Inside the American Jewish Establishment, says that American Jews provide "between one-fourth and one-half of all Democratic campaign funds".
Its activism grew in the Seventies, fostered by campaigns to put pressure on the Soviet Union to allow Jews to emigrate. Aipac developed in the Eighties as a link between the Republicans in the White House and the right-wing Likud party in power in Israel from 1977. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, owes his meteoric rise to his pivotal position during this period as the Israeli diplomat in Washington and New York who had support both in Israel and the US.
It would be a mistake to see Israel's influence in Washington as solely the outcome of the power of Aipac and the other Jewish lobby groups, as the alliance with Israel lies at the heart of US policy in the Middle East. The British dominated the region after defeating the Turks in the First World War, but after1948 this dominance gave way to that of the US, whose pre-eminence was confirmed between 1967 and 1990. In the first year, Israel's victory discredited Nasser of Egypt and the Arab nationalist governments. The Gulf war, when Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria joined the US against Iraq, left Washington without rivals and all its enemies in the region defeated.
At the moment of American victory, the US had less need of Israel. Washington put pressure on Israel not to respond to Iraqi missile attacks during the Gulf war; it did not want Israel to disrupt its alliance with Arab states. President George Bush and James Baker, his secretary of state, pushed the Israelis into attending a peace conference with the Palestinians in Madrid. They held up a $10bn (pounds 6.25bn) loan guarantee for the resettlement of Jews from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Mr Bush paid a price by losing support in the American Jewish community. Mr Clinton, by contrast, is seen in Israel as its best friend ever in the White House. He claimed credit for the Oslo accords but they were really the product of Scandinavian diplomacy and doves in the Israeli Labour party. If anything, the US role was negative.
The Middle East has been the great failure of Mr Clinton's presidency. He seems to have decided he cannot afford to offend either Israel or American Jewish activists. The US may have decided its position in the region is so strong that it can ignore Palestinian self- determination. The next few years will show if it is right.Reuse content