The Boston Phoenix October 19 - 26, 2000


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.

POWERFUL IMAGERY: the pictures make us feel, not think.

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 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 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 impeachment.

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Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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