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Dress Reversal

September 10, 1998 | 8:00 pm

Dress Reversal

How a certain cocktail dress could determine the future of Middle East diplomacy

Sitting in the lobby of Washington's May-flower Hotel last weekend, the famously quick- tongued Yossi Beilin formerly Shimon Peres' right hand man, for once almost at a loss for words. What do Israeli socialists know about cocktail dresses?

One thing, it turns out: they distract Washington's attention from urgent problems around the world. "It's simply surreal," said 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 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 foot-dragging on the peace process. Enter Lewinsky, and Clinton was suddenly preoccupied. Netanyahu had an unexpectedly placid visit and returned to Israel a happy man.

Seven months later, Yossi Beilin was in Washington as part of a four-member delegation of Labor Party leaders hoping to shift the mood again. Led by party chairman Ehud Barak, they came to burnish their image as a viable alternative to the unpopular Netanyahu.

Their prospects seemed bright on the eve of departure. The Knesset had taken a key step toward dissolving itself and calling new elections, handing 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," Beilin said.

To their dismay, the Laborites arrived to find that Clinton, too, had just been handed one of the worst political reverses of his tenure: 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 upbeat 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 Laborites' 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 Labor people believe the hands-off approach is a mistake. With nearly half of Netanyahu's own coalition favoring the American plan, plus the half of Israel that voted against Netanyahu, the plan has far more support in Israel than Netanyahu's spokesmen let on, they say. Now is the time to push.

Unfortunately, Beilin said, "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," one official said. "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 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," said an official. "The Republicans in Congress, the Christian fundamentalist community -- all the levers Netanyahu pulls so well when he's here. They'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 crises, 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 house guest.

In recent months, sources close to the administration said, 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 said time is running out. Opponents, mainly at the White House, said 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 Netanyahu's election was to find a way to keep the process going, while preserving the fundamentals of the U.S.-Israel relationship," said 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," said 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, in effect, 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.

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


J.J. Goldberg writes regularly for The Jewish Journal.

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