January 29, 1998
As Bibi Smiles, the Palestinians Sweat
"I have no doubt that President Clinton willcontinue to be personally involved in the peace process as he hasbeen up until now," said Cabinet secretary Danny Naveh, one ofBinyamin Netanyahu's closest aides.
But it was hard not to detect a certain gloatingin the Prime Minister's Office, an inescapable sense of satisfactionthat Clinton, who has been trying to push Netanyahu to give more thanhe wants to give to the Palestinians, was now up to his neck introuble.
This perceived satisfaction on Netanyahu's partgrew partly out of personal considerations. Clinton had hardly triedto hide his distaste and lack of trust for the Israeli primeminister, and he had treated him in cavalier fashion duringNetanyahu's visit to Washington last week. House Speaker NewtGingrich, Clinton's political enemy and Netanyahu's ally, called it"snub diplomacy."
But aside from whatever personal glow Netanyahumay have been getting from Clinton's problems, he stood to reap agreat political benefit from the Lewinsky accusations: With Clintonweakened and preoccupied with survival, he had far less ability topress Netanyahu for concessions on the peace process.
With Clinton's status falling, the RepublicanParty's status stood to rise, and the GOP, which controls the Senateand House, is Netanyahu's single-most important foreign ally. TheIsraeli government, it seemed, could breathe much easier, at leastuntil "Naughtygate," or "Monicagate," or whatever it was beingcalled, sorted itself out. The scandal broke just as Netanyahu,followed by Yasser Arafat, arrived in Washington to meet withClinton. Monica Lewinsky made them disappear, and, for Netanyahu, atleast, that was just fine.
Some of Netanyahu's colleagues didn't bother tohide their good cheer over the sex-lies-and-audiotapes controversy."American pressure will diminish, and I see this as a positivedevelopment," said Likud Knesset Member Naomi Blumenthal.
In general, Israelis who favored Netanyahu'stight-fisted line on the peace process were happy about the Lewinsky"Affair," while the more dovish saw it as a serious blow to Israel'sinterests. Some of the latter, however, tried to advise the Netanyahuadministration against overconfidence.
"I would recommend that the Israeli government notbank on false hopes," said Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo, a Likud dove whoopposes Netanyahu. "It might be that precisely because Clinton is introuble, he will have that much more motivation to achieve a majorforeign policy success, and will press the Israelis and Palestiniansharder toward agreement."
There was yet another point of view: that MonicaLewinsky would have no effect on the fortunes of the Middle East.This was the opinion held by one of Israel's premier politicalscientists, Hebrew University Professor Shlomo Avineri. He arguedthat Clinton, like all U.S. presidents, has a marginal effect onIsraeli-Arab affairs, so the diminution of Clinton's powers would notmake much difference to the people of the region.
"The U.S. only has real leverage on Middle Eastpeace talks in times of acute crisis -- such as in the Yom KippurWar, the Lebanon War, and the Gulf War -- or when there is politicalwill on both sides -- such as in the Camp David Accords," Avinerisaid. "We are not in an acute crisis, and there is no evidence ofpolitical will for an agreement. Obviously, Netanyahu and Arafatdon't see eye to eye."
On the Palestinian street, there was talk of aJewish conspiracy. "In the Arab world and among the Palestinians,many people believe that because Monica Lewinsky is Jewish, theWashington sex scandal is nothing but another stunt by the IsraeliMossad intended to distract the attention of the American public andof President Clinton away from the peace process. In East Jerusalem,you could hear perfectly serious people saying that the timing of thenew scandal could not possibly be a coincidence. According to thatversion, the Israelis were alarmed by the possibility that thepresident might take a pro-Palestinian stance, and quickly cooked upthe new sex scandal," wrote Ha'aretz's Danny Rubinstein, one ofIsrael's premier Palestinian-affairs journalists.
Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin had nodoubt who was behind the "bimbo eruption" in Washington. "The Zionistlobby and world Zionism creates disasters for anyone who may cause itproblems," the sheikh said.
It was widely noted in Israel that Monicagatebroke almost exactly one year after the Bar-On Affair corruptionaffair surfaced here. It was also noted that the principals in theBar-On Affair, chiefly Netanyahu, emerged untouched, if notstrengthened. Finally, it was noted that while Americans make such abig deal out of their presidents' sex lives, Netanyahu's 1993admission of an extramarital affair never hurt him a whit. Israel, itwas remembered, is not America.
Clinton remains a popular figure in Israel, and,in his hour of need, Israelis felt sympathy for him. In a poll takena few days after Monicagate hit the news, the respectedGeocartography Institute found that 56 percent of Israelis sided withthe president, and 29 percent opposed him. Recalling Clinton's famousfarewell, "Shalom, Haver," to Yitzhak Rabin, billboards featuringClinton's picture began appearing. The caption read: "We're with you,haver."