The Boston Phoenix October 19 - 26, 2000


Clinton's ambition, Arafat's war


by Seth Gitell

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 prime minister 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.

CAUTION AHEAD: neither candidate seems to have what it takes to support Israel. But if no American leader sends a clear message, the Middle East could erupt in war.

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.

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Read more about the Middle East in Don't Quote Me

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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