Clinton's ambition, Arafat's war
by Seth Gitell
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 to be Prime Minister of Israel, 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
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 1998 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
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.
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