With new elections in Israel now set for May 17, 1999, many questions about the vote remain to be answered. But from an American frame of reference, the big question is not which candidates will emerge as serious rivals to embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The great unknown of the coming campaign is to what extent will the government of the United States seek to involve itself in the election.

The posture of the United States has played a crucial role in at least the last two Israeli elections.

In 1992, the intense open hostility of the Administration of President George Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker toward Yitzhak Shamir’s Israeli government nearly ruptured the U.S.-Israel alliance. The late Yitzhak Rabin and Labor benefitted mightily from the perception that Washington’s abhorrence for Shamir and Likud might permanently alienate Israel’s sole ally. Given the razor-thin edge in Knesset seats that was the margin of Rabin’s victory, the U.S. stand has to be considered crucial.

Don’t touch that flag, Bubba! But that intervention paled before President Clinton’s all-out effort to ensure the election of Shimon Peres as Prime Minister in 1996.

Clinton and his entire foreign policy team went out of their way to bolster Peres as Prime Minister after terrorist bombings and the behavior of the Palestinian Authority’s Yasser Arafat fatally undermined the Labor government. Indeed, as some observers said at the time, Clinton campaigned harder for Peres (and against Likud challenger Netanyahu) than he did for many a Congressional Democrat.

But unlike 1992, the results were not what Washington intended. However much they may have liked President Clinton, Israelis did not care for the banana republic treatment accorded their country. The president’s propping up of Peres carried little weight. Peres was hopelessly tied to Arafat and that trumped Clinton’s endorsement.

When contrary to Clinton’s hopes, Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli premier directly elected by the people, the United States was left with egg on its face. Over the course of the following 30 months, the Netanyahu and Clinton relationship has rarely risen above the animosity engendered during that election.

Netanyahu will have his hands full dealing with revolts in Likud and the emergence of possible centrist options as well as with Labor. Dissatisfaction with the prime minister’s halting attempts to advance the Oslo process (from both the right and the left) as well as disgust with Netanyahu’s treatment of colleagues seems to have irrevocably broken the coalition that won the last election. But with nearly six months to go before the balloting, anything, including a Netanyahu comeback, is possible.

With Netanyahu’s demands for reciprocity from the Palestinians still a thorn in the side of Clinton’s Middle East policy, it is no secret that the State Department and the White House is openly rooting for the prime minister’s defeat. The question is, are they wise enough to back off and let Israel’s voters make their own decisions?

At the moment, Clinton may be too preoccupied with his own impeachment crisis and the ongoing confrontation with Iraq to have much time to monkey around with Israeli politics. But as May approaches, the temptation to intervene may prove irresistable. Especially if Netanyahu or another Oslo opponent appears to have a strong chance of victory.

The leadership of the organized American Jewish world, who have been known to intervene in Israeli politics themselves, need to tell the Administration in no uncertain terms that in 1999, America must stand aside and let the people of Israel choose.

Whether Israelis opt for a candidate who is more committed to Oslo than Netanyahu, for a leader who’s an outright Oslo critic or even someone like Amnon Lipkin-Shahak — who keeps his opinions to himself — it is their choice and their future, not ours, that’s at stake.

Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent