Peres and his friends in the White House
Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem on why Clinton wants Labour to win next week
Patrick Cockburn is an Irish journalist who has been a Middle East correspondent since 1979 for the Financial Times and, presently, The Independent. He was awarded Foreign Commentator of the Year at the 2013 Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards.
Saturday 25 May 1996
Signals of support for Mr Peres from President Bill Clinton require little decoding. "We must be with you every step of the way until there is a comprehensive, lasting peace in the Middle East," Mr Clinton said last week. "Now is not the time to turn back." Israelis quickly grasp that "turning back" means voting for Likud and its leader, Binyamin Netanyahu.
"Todah, haver - thank you, friend," responded Mr Peres, and he has a lot to be grateful for. When he was politically damaged by four suicide bombs, which killed 63 people in Israel in February and March, it was Mr Clinton who rushed to his rescue by organising a solidarity meeting for Israel with 27 world leaders at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt. In April the US stood by Mr Peres during his abortive military intervention in Lebanon and protected him after the Qana massacre.
Obviously Mr Netanyahu does not like this though he is careful to blame Mr Peres, not Mr Clinton, for a "cynical attempt to use US-Israeli relations for political ends. I don't think there's ever been anything like it. It's shocking. It's amusing. I'd even say pathetic." In private Mr Netanyahu is less amused but he cannot criticise the White House too openly because Israeli voters like their leaders to have good relations with the US. But if Mr Peres, just 4 per cent ahead in the polls, wins narrowly next Wednesday it will be largely thanks to Mr Clinton.
Why is Mr Clinton trying so hard? There is an obvious, if cynical motive, in his own re-election campaign. It is a Washington nostrum that any politician who wants a future should avoid offending three lobbies: the tobacco industry, the National Rifle Association and Aipac - the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It is a saying Mr Clinton took to heart long ago. Sharing a podium with Mr Peres during Aipac's annual meeting on 28 April Mr Clinton pledged that the relationship between the US and Israel is "so strong that no one will ever drive a wedge between us". Aipac delegates rewarded him by standing on chairs to chant: "Four more years!"
To Arab countries this is confirmation that Mr Clinton is in the pocket of the Jewish lobby in the US. But this is naive. The Oslo peace process, an agreement at state level to defuse the Arab-Israeli crisis, is the centrepiece of the Pax Americana in the Middle East. It institutionalises the predominance achieved by the US through its victory in the Gulf war in 1991. The 13 Arab leaders at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit were there as a tribute to American, not Israeli, influence in the region.
An ironic side effect of Mr Clinton's total backing for Israel may be to doom the Oslo peace accords as a way of ending the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians regardless of who wins the election to be Israel's next prime minister. Few Palestinians have benefited from Oslo so far. Most are poorer for it. Gaza and the West Bank are sealed off. In the wake of the Gulf war the US pressured Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, but under Mr Clinton this pressure has stopped.
Even if Mr Peres wins on Wednesday it is almost inevitable that Labour, its left-wing ally Meretz and the Israeli-Arabs will fail to win 61 seats out of 120 seats in the Knesset (parliament). The result will be that a new administration under Mr Peres will be further to the right than that elected in 1992 to make peace with the Palestinians. It is unlikely to meet even the minimum terms of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, during the final status negotiations on Israeli settlements, refugees, frontiers and Jerusalem.
Curiously it is not the open US intervention in the election which has been making headlines in Israel. Mr Peres and Mr Clinton are agreed that it is Iran which is trying to manipulate the election result. "I know that Iran stands behind attempts to strike against us on the eve of elections," said Mr Peres last week. "Despite the smiley faces they are putting on for the Europeans, they are pressuring the Islamic Jihad and Hizbollah to step up attacks against us."
Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, has been making the same point. He said: "In advance of the Israeli elections, Iranian-trained terrorists have been sent to infiltrate Israel and the Palestinian territories." A drive-by shooting which killed an American student was attributed by Mr Christopher to an "Iranian-backed organisation," though it had been claimed by Hamas. In private US diplomats admit that Hamas is funded privately or by conservative Arabs in the lower Gulf.
Despite the allegations, there is little evidence that Iran is central to the suicide bombing attacks. Hamas leaders supporting the attacks live not in Iran but Jordan. The demonisation of Iran by the US and Israel is an attempt to inoculate Mr Peres against losing the election if another bomb explodes. If one does go off Mr Peres will portray it to voters as a subtle Iranian effort to replace him by Likud, a view certain to be endorsed by the White House.
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