Netanyahus charm wont avert peace clash with U.S.

From a public relations point of view, it's hard to find fault with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's performance in Washington last week, a "tour de force," according to at least two major Jewish leaders.

Within hours of his speech to a joint meeting of Congress, legislators from both parties were racing to be the first with laudatory faxes; on Capitol Hill, everybody wanted a piece of the Bibi action.

Israeli government officials were ecstatic. The triumphal congressional appearance, President Bill Clinton's apparent docility and the mostly favorable press coverage suggested to many that the American-raised and educated Netanyahu was capable of "managing" U.S.-Israeli relations effectively without compromising the tough-sounding platform that vaulted him to victory in May.

But there was also something discordant about Netanyahu's winning of Washington: It was too slick, too successful in diverting attention from real differences in policy between the two countries.

Netanyahu may well be on the right course for Israel; it's far too early to tell whether his toughened stance toward the Palestinians and Syrians will move the negotiations to a new and more realistic plane or unravel them.

But if the new Israeli leader believes his friendship with conservative American legislators and his ability to roll over Clinton will give him complete freedom to remake a peace process vital to American international interests, he may wake up with a particularly bad hangover after the U.S. elections in November.

Oddly, Netanyahu's stance on the most explosive issues, including Hebron and direct dialogue with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, were far more uncompromising than commentators predicted. Still, he somehow seemed to avert a potential confrontation with Washington through political guile and pure charm.

In an exhilarating political moment, Netanyahu won over Congress with strong words about terrorism, a subject that he adroitly and accurately tied to American interests. While his Gingrich-esque criticisms of big government won strong applause, they will have not the slightest impact in the future if legislators feel America's Mideast interests have been hurt by changing Israeli policies.

The Clinton administration rolled over and played dead. While the president and his handlers care about the peace process, they are even more concerned about the approaching presidential election.

Clinton's team desperately wants to avoid new tensions and controversies that could reinforce Republican claims that the president has mismanaged foreign policy.

And, to be fair, the administration wanted to give Netanyahu a chance to show just how thoroughly he plans to turn campaign promises into diplomatic reality.

But that submissive posture is unlikely to continue if the president is re-elected — especially since he will almost certainly appoint a new secretary of state to replace Warren Christopher, who reflexively eschews confrontation, and a new peace process team.

Bob Dole sang Netanyahu's praises because he hopes to gain some Jewish votes and more Jewish campaign money, thus contradicting a career replete with legislative Israel- bashing. But despite the words of admiration from the campaign trail, Dole, a traditional American internationalist, is unlikely to favor Israel in some new Mideast crisis — especially if American economic interests are threatened.

The point is that Netanyahu's reception, while positive, was shallow. The prime minister pushed all the right buttons, but they were political buttons that had nothing to do with long-term American interests in the region.

Six months from now, with the elections safely behind them, legislators and administration officials alike — no matter which administration — will have long since forgotten the cheering in the House chamber last week.

If Netanyahu maintains the current Middle East status quo, without reversing the accomplishments of the peace process so far, most legislators will be content to ignore the region — as they usually do.

And the White House, preoccupied with domestic and economic matters, will be unlikely to challenge an Israeli government that is holding the line.

But if Netanyahu starts to reverse the Mideast status quo he inherited from the Rabin-Peres government, the legislators who cheered so enthusiastically last week will not lift a finger to blunt the fury of an administration that sees a clear and strong American interest in the peace process.

Bibi's charm and his skillful evocation of conservative domestic themes will not forestall that looming confrontation. The ardent reception in Congress and the acquiescent one at the White House may have sent a dangerously misleading message obscuring that reality.

The correct message from Netanyahu's five-day American trip is that there is a great reservoir of good feeling toward Israel right now that he, the most media-savvy Israeli leader ever, may be able to exploit — at least until the dust settles after November.

American political leaders genuinely believe that Netanyahu, with his emphasis on security and his clear-eyed view of some of the major actors in this drama, has the potential to craft a more viable peace process.

But the reservoir is not bottomless, and it is not filled just with sound bites and political clichés. Eventually, Netanyahu will have to act, not just talk. He is dangerously mistaken if he believes charm and political savvy will be enough to avert a clash if U.S. and Israeli policies diverge.