Clinton II

The punditiocracy has been predicting the Netanyahu government will be in for a rough four years from Bill Clinton, now that he no longer has to worry about Jewish votes. The Arabs are certainly counting on this; in fact, Yasir Arafat bet the Hebron withdrawal on his belief a politically insulated Clinton will pressure Israel to capitulate to his demands. The Israelis are certainly doing their best to provoke the United States, but the mere fact that Clinton doesn’t have to be reelected does not mean he is free to turn on Israel even if that was his desire.

First, it is worth noting that history offers no evidence that a second term President will turn on Israel. Eisenhower did not (he was already hostile), Nixon did not (he helped save Israel in 1973) and Ronald Reagan did not. One reason Presidents have little incentive to change policies dramatically is that, despite conventional wisdom, they do not make foreign policy on the basis of domestic politics. That is not to say interest group pressure plays no role whatsoever, but foreign policy is usually driven more by a President’s ideology. This was certainly true for the three Presidents cited above.

A second reason why second term Presidents aren’t likely to shift policy gears is that they want to help their party retain control of the White House. If Clinton were to suddenly take positions viewed as hostile to Israel, is there any doubt that Al Gore or the other potential Democratic presidential candidates would pay a price? When Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for a second term, supposedly isolating him from political pressure, he was very conscious of the impact his actions would have on Hubert Humphrey. That is one reason, for example, that he decided to sell Phantom jets to Israel in 1968, a landmark policy shift that established the United States as Israel’s principal arms supplier. It also marked the beginning of the U.S. policy to give Israel a qualitative military edge over its neighbors.

Yet another reason to doubt any change in Administration support for Israel is the steadfastness of Congress. The Israeli lobby’s real influence is in getting economic policies adopted by the Congress and using the legislative branch to constrain the executive branch. Thus, Congress will continue to support aid to Israel and will make it difficult for the President to pressure Israel by opposing any such actions.

In the specific case of Clinton, you also have a President who earnestly believes in strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship (Clinton has already pledged to continue aid at its current levels). He was obviously going to breeze to victory this year with the overwhelming support of Jewish voters (exit polls say he got 78 percent), so he could have been critical of Netanyahu or exerted some degree of pressure without risking losing the election or many Jewish votes.

All that being said, the Israelis still should not expect a free ride. If they appear to be the intransigent party in the peace process and/or fail to fulfill their obligations under the Oslo accords, Israel should expect harsh criticism and pressure to make concessions. Netanyahu’s remarks suggesting that America isn’t that important hardly have endeared him to the American public. Worse, he has reportedly done what many people thought impossible, make the President who wants to like (and be liked) everyone dislike him. Netanyahu certainly did Clinton no favors during the campaign and he shouldn’t be surprised if Clinton reciprocated.

Though Congress will go along with providing a disproportionate amount of aid to Israel, Netanyahu’s candid admission that Israel doesn’t need the money (at least the economic support) would certainly justify a cut. Many members appreciate the Prime Minister’s tough bargaining, but others are beginning to wonder if the guy who seemed so smooth and politically astute when he was at the UN is another Shamir (who almost everyone hated).

Should relations get testy, Netanyahu will not be able to count on the kind of broad support from the American Jewish community that Prime Ministers once could take for granted. The Likud legitimized public criticism of Israel and there will be no shortage of that if the peace process does not begin to advance soon. American Jews were afraid to take on a hostile President — George Bush — when Shamir got in a pissing match with him, so they certainly are not going to challenge the most pro-Israel President in history if Netanyahu provokes Clinton. Right-wingers may take issue with polling methodology, but there is no question the majority of American Jews want to see the peace process move forward and are not going to man the barricades to support expanding settlements or reneging on the Oslo agreements.

Worse, certain Israeli politicians appear ready to provoke the mother of all Israel-Diaspora wars by introducing proposals to invalidate non-Orthodox conversions. If that happens, no one is going to pay a whole lot of attention to what Bill Clinton does, because the Israeli government will have an open revolt on its hands from the most influential American Jewish groups.

If anything, Clinton II should be at least as good for Israel as Clinton I. If it is not, the Israelis will probably have only themselves to blame.