The Boston Phoenix 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.

Arafat, Clinton, Barak 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 negotiations. 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."

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Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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