J.J. Goldberg

Jewish World Review August 17 , 1998 / 25 Menachem-Av, 5758

J.J. Goldberg

Arafat makes his intentions clear.
He didn't count on Monica and her dress.
How Monica Lewinsky and her dress destroyed the Middle East Peace Accords

WASHINGTON --- Sitting in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel here, the famously quick- tongued Yossi Beilin seemed, for once, almost at a loss for words. What, after all, do Israeli socialists know about cocktail dresses?

One thing, it turns out: that they distract Washington's attention from urgent problems around the world.

"It's simply surreal," said Dr. Beilin, a leader of Israel's opposition Labor Party.

"To think that the greatest power on earth is out of commission because of Monica Lewinsky's dress -- it's one of the most surreal episodes in history."

Last January, when the world first learned of Ms. Lewinsky, the presidential sex scandal triggered a sudden mood swing in U.S.-Israel relations. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had just landed in Washington, expecting to have Bill Clinton read him the riot act for what the Administration saw as foot-dragging on the peace process.

Enter Ms. Lewinsky, and Mr. Clinton was suddenly preoccupied. Mr. Netanyahu had an unexpectedly placid visit and returned to Israel a happy man.

Seven months later, Dr. Beilin was in Washington as part of a four-member delegation of Labour Party leaders. Led by party chairman Ehud Barak, they came in hopes of burnishing their image as a viable alternative to Mr. Netanyahu.

Their prospects seemed bright on the eve of departure. The Knesset had taken a key step towards dissolving itself and calling new elections, handing Mr. Netanyahu one of the worst political reverses of his tenure.

"That means we're here as a group that could come to power in the near future," Dr. Beilin maintained.

To their dismay, they arrived to find that President Clinton, too, had just been handed one of the worst political reverses of his tenure: Ms. Lewinsky's decision to testify about the alleged affair and to hand over a certain cocktail dress. Nobody in Washington was talking about anything else.

"It's depressing," the usually ebullient Dr. Beilin said.

"The news begins and ends with Monica's dress. It feels as though reality has been shoved aside in favor of some virtual reality."

The Labour MS's message was that the Administration should keep pushing for an Israeli-Palestinian deal. Washington has been pressing Jerusalem for months to give the Palestinians 13.1 percent of the West Bank in exchange for a string of concessions.

Israel has resisted mightily. A few weeks ago Washington effectively stopped pushing. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright now says the sides should work things out by themselves.

The Labour people believe the hands-off approach is a mistake.

With nearly half of Mr. Netanyahu's own coalition favoring the US plan, plus the half of Israel that voted against Mr. Netanyahu, the proposal has far more support in Israel than the Premier's spokesmen let on, they argue. Now is the time to push.


Unfortunately, said Dr. Beilin, "the United States is not available right now, because it's somewhere else. It's caught up in some sort of virtual reality. The fact is that there is a reality out there. It's called international conflict.

"And right now the victims of those conflicts feel that the so-called policeman of the world can't respond. As a citizen of the world, it's one of the most frustrating things imaginable to see the world's only superpower paralyzed by this foolishness." Administration officials take sharp exception to the idea that they're paralyzed.

"This thing's been going on for months," sniffed one official. "It hasn't stopped us from being active on a lot of fronts. We've been active in Iraq. We've been active in China. If we're less active in the peace process, it's because that's what the policy calls for."

Privately, many officials concede that Middle East policy is heavily influenced by domestic politics. No one admits Ms. Lewinsky is a factor. But they do admit the question of how heavily Washington can pressure Jerusalem is, as one official put it, "very complicated right now."

To a degree the complications aren't new.

Jewish community leaders, though divided on how much Israel should give away, tend to close ranks in the face of administration pressure. It's a powerful deterrent.

"There are other constraints, too," says an official. "The Republicans in Congress, the Christian fundamentalist community -- all the levers Mr. Netanyahu pulls so well when he's here. The're all voices the administration has to listen to."

At the moment, the voice speaking loudest is the Jewish community.

The reason is simple. In times of crisis, Presidents fall back on core constituencies.

For a Democrat, that begins with Jews. "The last thing the president wants to do at a time like this is offend his best friends," said a Washington political activist, noting that Clinton was spending the weekend as Steven Spielberg's houseguest.


In recent months, say sources close to the Administration, Clinton aides have been sharply divided over whether or not to step up the pressure on Israel to accept the 13.1 percent deal.

Those favoring increased pressure, mainly at the State Department, insist the President has more leeway to act than he assumes, because of divisions within the Jewish community over the peace process and religious pluralism. And they say time is running out.

Opponents, mainly at the White House, say pressure would hurt Al Gore's presidential hopes.

Within the State Department, a small faction reportedly opposes pressuring on Israel on principle. The faction is said to be led by Dennis Ross, the special Middle East negotiator, who has privately argued for years that pressure only causes Israel to dig in its heels.

Since Netanyahu's election in 1996, Ross's position has been the minority view. The State Department, with White House blessing, has chosen high-profile activism.

"Everything we've done since Mr. Netanyahu's election was to find a way to keep the process going, while preserving the fundamentals of the U.S.-Israel relationship," says one official.

Now, sources say, the president's closest political advisers are vetoing pressure.

"He won't lose support from Jewish liberals if he doesn't pressure Israel," says a source close to the White House.

"But he will lose support from conservatives if he does pressure Israel. So politically there's nothing to be gained from pressure."

The bottom line, Dr. Beilin and like-minded Jewish activists maintain, is that Monica Lewinsky once again has the last word in Middle East diplomacy.

Last January this prompted jokes about Monica as Queen Esther, giving herself to save her people.

Now the jokes are about blue dresses with white stains, about 20th century Jewish history ending right where it began, in the women's garment business.

Dr. Beilin isn't laughing. "You can make jokes about it," he says. "We can't, because we're the ones paying the price."

J.J. Goldberg is the author of Jewish Power : Inside the American Jewish Establishment and the London Jewish Chronicle's American correspondent.


©1998, J.J. Goldberg and the London Jewish Chronicle