[Sidebar] October 19 - 26, 2000


Clinton's ambition, Arafat's war

Clinton's zeal for a Nobel Peace Prize has brought the Middle East to the brink of war. Neither presidential candidate has what it takes to undo the damage

by Seth Gitell

[] Some political observers are calling the recent burst of violence in the Middle East an "October surprise." Many presidential campaigns have had one: Nixon's "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War, the possibility of American hostages' being released from Iran. But there's nothing surprising about what's been taking place over the past two weeks.

On the contrary, anyone who's followed news of the Middle East peace talks has been expecting something like this. President Bill Clinton, who's governed with one eye on opinion polls and the other on the history books, has orchestrated the peace process for the past five years. It was only a matter of time before his superficial approach -- motivated in large part by the accolades he believed he'd get by negotiating peace -- led to armed strife. People who follow the situation carefully are wondering why it didn't happen sooner.

The question now is whether his successor -- Vice-President Al Gore or Texas governor George W. Bush -- will repudiate Clinton's failed tactics and articulate a strong foreign policy for the Middle East. The next president could repair the considerable damage Clinton has done -- or worsen it.

AS A close observer of Clinton's role in the Middle East peace talks (I covered the Middle East for four years at the national Jewish weekly the Forward), I can say with confidence that since Clinton realized he might gain special recognition for his role in the peace talks -- perhaps even win a Nobel Peace Prize -- his strategy has been to ignore simmering hostilities in the region in favor of high-profile signing ceremonies whenever possible. (Since he's been in office, we've seen at least seven of these ceremonies -- not including the Balkans' ill-fated Dayton agreement. That's more than those held by the previous three presidents combined.) In negotiating these signings, Clinton seemed to operate on the theory that if he treated Yasir Arafat, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, as if he were a statesman -- ignoring considerable evidence to the contrary -- then Arafat would act like one. Unfortunately, reality has wedged itself between Clinton and his dreams.

Clinton's ambition led him to get involved with every aspect of the peace negotiations. In most successful bargaining sessions -- such as the one that produced the original Oslo agreement -- you let the small fry work out the deal and don't bring in the big cheese until it's done. But Clinton not only wants to be there at the end, he wants to do the job of Dennis Ross, the State Department bureaucrat who has worked on this issue since the Bush administration. Clinton likes to be in on these talks because he thinks his personal skill and charm -- which have wooed friends and disarmed Republicans -- will win the negotiators over.

The president has treated the centuries-old hostilities in the Middle East as if they were the budget deal or welfare reform. On those domestic issues, Clinton could "triangulate" against Newt Gingrich and the Republicans and come out looking good. But you can't spin bloodshed in the Middle East. That strategy failed miserably with Arafat and the late Hafez al-Assad of Syria. And unlike cutting deals with congressman, engaging in the nitty-gritty with such people can be dangerous: once these guys rebuff Clinton, they've got nowhere else to go but to the streets.

FOR YEARS Clinton has been giving Arafat the Steven Spielberg treatment: invite somebody to the White House enough times, he seems to believe, and you can get him to agree to anything. That may work on Hollywood types and big campaign donors, but it doesn't resonate with a thug like Arafat, who survives on a combination of daring, wit, and brutality. Still, Arafat has been to the White House during Clinton's tenure more times than any other foreign leader. (Remember that just a few years before Oslo, Arafat was advising Saddam Hussein and engaging in terrorist activity such as approving the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro.)

Both Gore and Bush are well aware of Clinton's policy and how it's failed. So when it comes to the political implications of the recent violence, it's not enough for these candidates to utter buzzwords about the "peace process" and the need to play the "honest broker." The best way for America to restore order to the region -- as some advisers in both Democratic and Republican circles now say -- is to take a time-out from the peace process. In response to what's happened, both candidates need to make the case that they will stand by Israel -- our Democratic ally in the Middle East -- and hold Arafat to his word. But so far, both George W. Bush and Al Gore have gone out of their way to support Clinton's handling of the Middle East. As conditions there worsen -- and don't expect Tuesday's "cease-fire" in Sharm el-Sheikh to solve anything -- the candidates will be forced to confront the ugly realities about Clinton's meddling.

"This opens up brilliant opportunities for both Bush and Gore," says one Washington-based foreign-policy specialist. "There is a sense out there that foreign policy is out of control." By repudiating Clinton's policy of coddling Arafat in exchange for incremental and temporary progress, Bush could transform himself into a tough-minded leader in the mold of Ronald Reagan. And Gore could become his "own man" on a matter of substance rather than sizzle.

But at this juncture in a presidential race marked by caution, it doesn't look as though either candidate will do the right thing. By late Tuesday night, it appeared that the Gore campaign was running away from the Middle East. Before the third presidential debate, Lieberman told a group of Jewish Democrats that "our campaign slogan has to be `Next year in Washington.' " The obvious implication of Lieberman's call -- which never mentioned the words "Israel" or "Middle East" -- was that the Democrats wished the whole issue would just go away so they could focus on domestic issues. Later, when the subject came up during the debate, Gore at first didn't respond to the question, then said that he had taken part "in the meetings that charted the president's summit meeting." Bush, for his part, hinted at a critique of the president, saying he would not "dictate" terms and that negotiations had to proceed on their own "timetable."

TO FULLY understand the implications of Clinton's superficial approach to the peace process, it's important to comprehend just what he's done. Generally speaking, he's taken credit for successes he had nothing to do with; he's interfered in Israeli elections; and he's pressured Israel to make concessions before the Israeli and Palestinian people have been ready to accept them. Most significantly, when Arafat's been given an inch, Clinton's let him take a mile.

When the Israelis first began negotiating with Palestinians in Oslo in 1993, the Clinton administration knew absolutely nothing about it. The talks, which grew into the Oslo peace accord, took Clinton completely by surprise. That, of course, didn't stop him from taking credit for the agreement -- and milking it for all it was worth. (Remember all the press coverage of Clinton pushing Rabin toward Arafat for that famous handshake?)

The idea behind that agreement was simple. The Palestinians would gain land and a degree of autonomy over their political lives; in return, they promised to give up violence and hateful rhetoric and work out disagreements peacefully. The reason Arafat came to the table -- and, later, to the Rose Garden for the signing ceremony -- wasn't that he liked Bill Clinton. It was that he saw the handwriting on the wall. When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union dissolved, Arab nations lost their primary financial patron. The humiliating defeat of the Iraqi juggernaut in 1991 showed that America was willing to stand by its allies and risk lives for what it believed in. Meanwhile, the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza, which began in 1987, had petered out. Arafat had no choice but to cut a deal with Israel.

Even as Clinton took credit for Oslo, he wasn't able to impose himself on the peace negotiations until the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. (Unlike his successors, Rabin had insisted that the Israelis and Palestinians conduct the peace negotiations.) When the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu challenged the more moderate Shimon Peres for the Israeli presidency, Clinton did everything he could to promote Peres. He paid a special visit to Israel, convened one of his famous summits at Sharm el-Sheikh, promised additional aid to Israel, and urged that the peace process move forward. He had his ambassador to Israel actively promote Peres's candidacy. Throughout, he ignored dangerous signals that Arafat wasn't keeping his word -- such as the suicide bombings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in February and March of 1996.

DESPITE CLINTON'S meddling, Benjamin Netanyahu of the hard-line Likud party won the election. Just a few months after Netanyahu's victory in 1996, Arafat tested Clinton. After Netanyahu decided to open a historic tunnel close to the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock area, the Palestinians claimed that the tunnel endangered the structural integrity of their historic holy place -- which it did not -- and began a campaign of violence not unlike what we've recently seen.

When, for the first time, armed members of the Palestinian police began shooting at Israelis (in the early stages of the peace process it was thought that these "police" would provide civil order within the Palestinian Authority), Clinton blamed Israel for having provoked the Palestinians. After an "emergency summit" in Washington, things cooled down, but the precedent was set: Arafat could continue to receive financial aid from the US, and moral support from the European Union and the world community, even as his police forces shot Israeli citizens.

There were warning signals that Clinton and his administration ignored. He failed to take any notice of inflammatory remarks by a Palestinian member of Arafat's inner circle, who predicted the scenario now unfolding in the Middle East: Nabil Shaath, a key Arafat ally, was quoted in the Jerusalem Post in 1996 as saying that when negotiations eventually deadlocked, the Palestinians would return to the armed struggle and "all acts of violence" would return. The Clinton administration downplayed the significance of evidence that Arafat was preparing his people for war -- not peace.

As a reporter for the Forward, I watched a video prepared by the Palestinian Media Review, an Israeli nonprofit group, that showed Palestinian schoolchildren being educated for militant action. In one bit of footage, a six-year-old girl sang that as "a daughter of Palestine . . . I never soften. Koran in my right hand. In my left hand -- a knife." Arafat clearly was encouraging this. But the Clinton administration and American advocates for the peace process dismissed these examples as right-wing propaganda, and its purveyors as enemies of peace.

"They always interpreted our insistence on reciprocity as a form of foot-dragging," recalls Dore Gold, Israel's former ambassador to the United Nations and a former foreign-policy aide to Netanyahu, referring to Israel's position that it would not make concessions without evidence that Arafat had met his previous promises. "Every time we produced a cassette tape [showing] Palestinian incitement, they would say, `Yeah, sure. When are you going to turn over the land?' "

Even outside the public spotlight, Clinton kept up the charm when talking about the Middle East. In {tkdate} I snagged an invitation to a private party at the Washington, DC, home of Clinton ally Robert Shrum, now a consultant to the Gore campaign. Once Clinton arrived, I noticed one of the attendees arguing with the president about putting so much pressure on Netanyahu. I took notes on their conversation. Clinton expressed impatience with the slow pace of the peace process. He said that the failure of the negotiations would be his "worst nightmare." Throughout, Clinton expressed his commitment to the peace process. He also said that he kept a photo of slain prime minister Rabin near his desk and looked at it "every day." When I told Clinton I was going to publish his remarks in a news story, he shook his head at me. "Don't write anything that'll make it harder for us to make peace over there," he drawled.

Those might sound like the words of a man committed to the peace process for the sake of peace. But keep in mind that many key events in the peace process took place simultaneously with events linked to Clinton's impeachment. The president kept Arafat waiting in the White House so he could finish an episode with Monica Lewinsky. The Lewinsky scandal broke in January 1998, when Clinton had scheduled another round of meetings with Arafat and Netanyahu. His comments to the small gathering, where he demonstrated an absolute command of the minutiae of the peace process, coincided with his battle against the independent counsel, Ken Starr. Even some of the toughest peace negotiations occurred around the same time as his actual impeachment. In clinging to the Middle East negotiations and memorializing Rabin, Clinton was surely hoping that his administration might be remembered for something other than the impeachment.

BY OCTOBER 1998, Clinton had persuaded Netanyahu, who was increasingly unpopular at home and abroad, to participate in another one of those made-for-camera peace talks at the now-famous Wye River Plantation (which also served as the temporary home of Elián González). During a historic signing ceremony on a glorious autumn day at the White House, Clinton sat by Arafat, Netanyahu, and the courageous King Hussein, whose cancer treatments had already caused him to lose his hair. But the agreement didn't hold, and the president made plans to put in place a more compliant Israeli leader.

In Ehud Barak, Clinton found a tough, well-decorated Israeli general -- one very much in the image of Rabin -- who would follow a line closer to that of the White House. Instead of relying on an ambassador who would promote the Labor Party candidate, this time the president dispatched three close allies -- Robert Shrum, James Carville, and Stan Greenberg -- to work for a Labor victory. In addition, in keeping with the classic Clinton tactic of divide and conquer, the president invited another former general and ex-Netanyahu ally, Yitzhak Mordechai, to the White House -- apparently as a way to build up Mordechai as a hawkish alternative to Netanyahu. The effort may not have been necessary: Netanyahu was a deeply flawed figure who had made enemies on both the right and the left. But Clinton gave the appearance of having doled out favors -- favors Barak would someday have to return.

After his victory, Barak immediately made good on his campaign promise to withdraw Israeli forces from Lebanon. It was a move that relieved the Israeli public, but seemed to embolden many in the Arab world -- including Arafat. Even more dramatically, Barak came to Camp David this July prepared to deal. The Israeli president offered Arafat 90 percent of the West Bank and indicated a willingness to share Jerusalem. The Jerusalem concession, in particular, marked a huge shift for an Israeli leader.

But Arafat balked. He wouldn't take the deal or propose a reasonable counteroffer. Some argue that Arafat was incapable of making any final agreement with Israel. But others, including Egypt's leader, Hosni Mubarak, have said that Clinton pushed everything too fast. Clinton's timetable required the signing of a final deal before January 2001-- the end of his last term in office -- and that schedule all but guaranteed violence.

So, well before Ariel Sharon set foot on the Temple Mount last month -- the ostensible "cause" of the recent violence -- the stage had been set for a confrontation. When Clinton sent the word down to United Nations ambassador Richard Holbrooke to abstain from a resolution condemning Israel for the recent violence, he fanned the flames of Palestinian anger. But what did Clinton expect after coddling Arafat for five years? This anger culminated in the mob killing of the two Israeli reservists, which, in turn, forced the hesitant Barak to authorize the Israel Defense Force attack on Ramallah and Gaza last week.

WHAT'S INTERESTING today is the silence from both Bush and Gore on all this. Both presidential candidates have advisers and friends ready to explain Clinton's complicity in the recent violence, but so far neither candidate has been willing to do more than utter inane platitudes.

For conservatives, especially the neo-conservatives and their progeny, Bush's position is particularly galling. Early in the presidential campaign, Austin signaled that Bush would be his own man on foreign policy -- not a clone of his father, who had a tense relationship with Israel. Just weeks after being re-elected as governor in 1998, Governor Bush visited Israel and even took a helicopter tour of the country with Ariel Sharon. The Bush camp put out the word that such hard-liners as Richard Perle and, to a lesser extent, Paul Wolfowitz were advising Bush on foreign policy. Yet so far, Bush's foreign-policy comments have been coming from Condoleeza Rice, who made her first official remarks on the Middle East before the Arab-American Institute in Michigan. The move sent an unmistakable message about whose voice a Bush administration would listen to on foreign policy. As a result, the pro-Israel conservatives who rallied behind Ronald Reagan in the 1980s are on the brink of finding themselves without a home.

Meanwhile, two of the biggest critics of Clinton's foreign policy are close advisers to Gore. One penned a letter to Clinton in 1998 that was co-signed by Senate colleagues from both sides of the aisle, calling on the president to back off from pressuring Netanyahu. The author's name? Joseph Lieberman. (Lieberman, however, was not among the 94 senators who objected to the recent UN abstention.) The other is Martin Peretz, owner of the New Republic. A vehement critic of Clinton's policy regarding Israel, Peretz is nonetheless one of Gore's staunchest supporters. He and others would love to see Gore follow up his pick of Lieberman and his "I am my own man" speech at the convention by distancing himself from Clinton's Middle East policy. (William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, mapped out just such a scenario in the magazine's October 23 editorial.)

Sources in the Gore camp say the vice-president would like nothing more than to do just that. Gore, according to these sources, believes America's abstention on the UN resolution condemning Israel was a mistake. He would have voted against the resolution, thereby killing it in the Security Council. They also note that when relations became frosty between Netanyahu and Clinton, Gore remained on good terms with the Israeli prime minister -- welcoming him to dinner and traveling to Israel for the country's 50th anniversary when Clinton declined to make the trip. But, as of this writing, Gore has failed to separate himself from Clinton.

As a result, many observers believe that Bush will look better on the issue than Gore -- simply by virtue of not seeming as reflexively pro-Israel. One Democratic Senate staffer says he believes Bush has already won the battle on foreign policy. "If I were on the campaign I'd tell Lieberman to take the rest of the campaign off -- say it's a Jewish holiday," the staffer says. "This is what the Republican high command's been dreaming of. The average American knows there are riots in Israel. The average American knows that Jews are killing Arabs. The average American knows that Arabs are killing American sailors. The average American knows that Lieberman is Jewish. It's a catastrophe for Democrats."

THE PALESTINIAN people, to be sure, deserve dignity, honor, and recognition of their national rights. The Oslo peace talks marked a recognition of these rights. But participating in negotiations means not getting everything you want. That's why Barak was prepared to cross almost every previously inviolate Israeli line in the hope for peace. The Palestinians, on the other hand, have given the impression that they may not be willing to compromise -- that, in effect, they want everything. That would mean the destruction of Israel and Zionism, to which no Israeli leader can agree.

A successful candidate seeking office as conflict rages in the Middle East ought to be the one who is willing to stand up before the world and articulate what is right -- the way Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan did when he served as America's ambassador to the United Nations in 1975. When the international body passed the "Zionism is racism" resolution, Moynihan declared that America "does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act."

That might be too much to hope for, however. Bush sent the wrong message during the second debate by saying he would preside over a "humble nation." The Saddam Husseins and the Osama bin Ladens of the world hate America, whether it is a humble nation or not. What they respect is a strong nation that stands by its friends.

Gore's comments in that debate, to be sure, suggested a coherent, strong foreign policy. But neither candidate seems to have what it takes to support Israel the way Moynihan did. The pundits keep telling us that this is an election without issues. Well, we've just been handed one -- and neither candidate is doing anything about it. In an election where polling data seem to rise and fall on what color tie a candidate wears during a debate, we probably shouldn't be surprised. But if no American leader sends a clear message of support for Israel between now and January, the Middle East could erupt in war.

You better believe future historians will remember that.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.

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