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Clinton’s squandered opportunity

Michael Moran believes President Bill Clinton has squandered the one truly historic opportunity he has encountered in foreign affairs: the Middle East peace process.

In September 1993, the political gods bestowed upon the neophyte President Bill Clinton a photo op so fortuitous that Millard Fillmore, had he been standing there instead of Clinton, would now have his face in high school history books. As if humbled by his luck, Clinton vowed to throw the weight of American diplomacy behind the Mideast peace process, to “take risks for peace.” But Clinton must have thought better of this tactic when setting Middle East policy, for “risky” it is not.

Indeed, if a Democratic president wanted to ensure that Middle East peacemaking would never suddenly rear up and slap him in the campaign fund, he could do worse than to follow the Clinton plan:

Encourage the Palestinian Authority to believe you will help hold Israel to agreements signed in Oslo and Washington.

Encourage the Israelis to believe that they can skip all the complicated “phased withdrawals” and just go to a final status talks whenever they see fit.

Run policy out of the White House, thus undercutting your doddering secretary of state.

Replace said dodderer with a Cold Warrior rather than giving the job to Richard Holbrooke, a man with a proven record of dealing with unreasonable characters.

Refuse any suggestion that the $3 billion a year in U.S. aid sent to Israel should be contingent on a good-faith effort to abide by signed agreements.

Veto any U.N. Security Council resolution that suggest Israel would be held to the same standards as other nations with regard to the treaties it signs.

Run around claiming peace in the Middle East as an achievement of your administration.


Since the election of Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, it has been clear that no progress would be made toward fulfillment of the 1993 peace plan agreed to on the White House lawn without considerable arm-twisting by the United States. Indeed, the only real step forward since Netanyahu took power was the withdrawal from 80 percent of Hebron in January, 1997, and only then with unprecedented guarantees from Secretary of State Warren Christopher and detailed revisions of the withdrawal plan that had already been agreed. It was Christopher’s finest hour.

Since then, nothing. No serious commitment by Israelis to complete the phased withdrawals before final status talks begin; no sign of a Palestinian gesture finally revising the Palestinian charter’s call for the annihilation of Israel or bringing their police force into compliance with Oslo.

Most of all, there is no sign in this election year that Washington is particularly concerned one way or another.

The current deadlock dates to the spring of 1997, when the Israelis proposed to hand over a mostly unpopulated tract of land to the Palestinians as the first of three further withdrawals agreed to under Oslo. The Palestinians, who signed Oslo under the impression that most of the West Bank was to be handed over before the final status talks, rejected it as too little.


The Clinton administration’s answer to the deadlock has been pusillanimous. Madeleine Albright, still on her victory tour of town meetings, would not put her reputation on the line so early in her new job. So Dennis Ross, Clinton’s essentially powerless envoy, was “dispatched to the region” to listen to the apocalyptic cajoling of Arafat and the blustering schemes of Netanyahu.

As things deteriorated further, Clinton met Netanyahu and Arafat at the White House and found that the Israeli is more than his match when it comes to guile. American demands went unmet and Israel’s “friends” in the U.S. attacked Clinton for making them. The appearance of American helplessness tinged with apathy has fed the tumor that is killing the peace process.

In February, after someone pointed out that only six months remained in the five year plan envisioned by Oslo, someone at the White House leaked word that the United States was going to get tough. Although they wouldn’t say it in public, the United States was going to press Israel to hand over a minimum of 13 percent of the West Bank. Just to make sure the Israelis knew we meant business, a threat was floated: “If you don’t agree to the 13 percent, we will make the demand official, in public.

As bluffs go, this was fairly weak. Given that the demand had already been on the front page of The New York Times, it is hard to imagine precisely what kind of leverage the White House thought it had here. Nonetheless, the administration played its hand out to the end. At one point, Albright issued an ultimatum that said, in effect, if you don’t agree to do this within two weeks, we’re not going to mediate any more.

Now there’s a threat to curdle the blood of an Israeli government desperate to perpetuate the status quo. The ultimatum passed unmet, with Netanyahu victorious and Arafat’s aides in despair.


The final sad act in this drama is now being played out. Astoundingly, the United States has adopted a position that actually compounds all of the mistakes it has made since 1996 and makes it far less likely that agreement ultimately can be reached on the truly serious issues — Jerusalem’s status, control of water resources and the ultimate status and borders of the Palestinian entity.

Having made a complete hash of this “first of three” withdrawals, Albright blithely announced that the United States now favored skipping the final two pullouts and going straight to final status talks.

Say what you will about Netanyahu: He may be a bully, he may be an opportunist and an obstructionist, but he’s no shlemeel. From early in his 1996 campaign, Netanyahu contended that Labor’s blueprint — phased withdrawals and then final status talks — would give away the store before the final status talks even began. He felt, probably rightly, that Israel would be in a stronger bargaining position at the final status talks if it retained most of the West Bank. The Palestinians would then be unable to focus on demands for East Jerusalem. The West Bank, in essence, would be a bargaining chip.

All of that is shrewd negotiating. Unfortunately, it is not what the Israeli government agreed to in 1993. Nor is it consistent in the long run with stability. For the peace process to survive into the next century, it will have to be acceptable to the vast majority of Palestinians, not just the motley band that is huddled around Arafat. If the final status talks produce something that looks more like a South African homeland for Palestinians than a true state, all this talk is for nothing. Anticipating this, Arafat has already laid plans to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state — an action with unpredictable consequences.

As things now stand, it appears that Arafat will get his state — not the one he wants and probably not without further bloodshed. Netanyahu got his bargaining chip and his security — though probably not in the long term.

And Clinton? President Clinton gets his picture in the history books with a caption that says, “If only he had taken risks for peace.”

MSNBC's Michael Moran writes a weekly column on foriegn affairs.