Blind support for Israel undermines U.S. as peace broker
October 16, 2000
One who lays a crooked brick, builds a tumbling wall. If this is not
already a proverb in the Middle East, well, it should be. On the first
of October, the wall that Bill Clinton was building in the Middle East
came crumbling down, burying his quest for that elusive and dubious legacy
as a peacemaker and sending his hope for a peace prize down the proverbial
On that day I awoke to the horrifying front page of the Boston Sunday
Globe: it depicted the violence that had racked Ramallah on the occasion
of the Jewish New Year. The picture showed a rock-throwing Palestinian
running in the foreground of a pile of burning tires near a Palestinian
flag. The victims of Palestinian ire, on the basis of that picture, were
the armed Israeli soldiers, one of whom was shown in a very small inset
being helped by a comrade. The metaphor of David and Goliath, perpetrator
and victim were all too subliminal, but obvious.
Buried on page 17 of the same newspaper, there was the black-and-white
frames of a video that showed a Palestinian child executed in a barrage
of gunfire while seeking cover with his father behind a barrel. The bullet
holes in the wall against which the boy once had leaned spoke of a genocidal
conduct by the Israeli soldiers. Side by side, the Boston Globe had
made the choice to reinforce the stereotype of the "ugly Arab"
on page one while downplaying the atrocities of the "can-never-do-wrong
Israeli soldiers. The "martyrdom" of the slain child made news
the next day, but again my hometown newspaper chose to carry the story
on page 11.
No sooner was this becoming a faint memory of man's inhumanity to man
than the world was treated to a first rate evidence of the indiscriminate
nature of barbarism: an Israeli soldier was beaten and stabbed to death
and hurled out the window of a police station and into a crowd awaiting
that proceeded to maim the corpse even more.
What sparked it all? The Clinton Administration and the Israeli government
quickly condemned the Palestinians and Arafat's loss of control over his
own people. The Palestinian authority blamed the visit by Ariel Sharon
to a site holy to Moslems and Jews both, and premier Barak's inability
to stop Sharon from visiting the tomb of Joseph. The bang by which the
powder keg blew however tells a story far more complex and explosive than
the mere visit of the rotund fuse that sparked the firestorm.
Many moons ago, certainly before the recent Intifada II, there was the
Oslo accords, whose Israeli architect was eventually slain at the hands
of a fanatic Jew. The cause of pursuing peace after Yitzhak Rabin devolved
on the acting premier Shimon Peres who was being challenged for the premiership
of Israel by Benjamin Netanyahou, the right wing Israeli candidate. In
the heat of the elections, the Clinton Adminsitration openly backed Peres
and demonized Netanyahou. Surprise! Netanyahou won the election and Clinton
could never gain the new premier's goodwill and trust. So, Clinton laid
the first crooked brick in a long labor leading to the complete loss of
his moral authority as an honest broker.
Under Netanyahou's shrewd stewardship, Oslo began to unravel, as the
concessions once promised were watered down and the timetables shifted.
The future of peace shifted from principle to dividing the land by percentages.
The Wye accords emerged from these give and takes. In the middle of all
this, Hillary Clinton announced that the Palestinians should have their
own state, although she had backed the idea during an earlier visit to
Palestine. This forced the White House to distance itself from her remark,
which then confused both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Then she sat
passively listening to Mrs. Arafat's lambasting tirade about Israeli brutality
and poisoning of wells.
Fastforward to July 2000 and the proximate cause of the present violence,
Camp David II. A generation ago, when Jimmy Carter was in office, this
presidential retreat had hosted the peace talks between President Sadat
of Egypt, and Menachem Begin, the feisty premier of Israel, from which
talks emerged the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. When it came time for
a super-summit between Arafat and Barak it was felt that Camp David would
be inspiring and, besides, if this came off as a success then the memory
of Carter and Camp David I would be eclipsed by this Clintonian feat. There
is no secret: Clinton cannot stand Carter.
The magic of Camp David was not there, though. The pictures told the
story. From the get go, Clinton had to herd Arafat closer to the path leading
to the entrance to the conference room and then practically shoved him
into the entrance. Oriental courtesy aside, the picture was an apt metaphor
for a reluctant Palestinian being railroaded. Things got serious quickly,
so much so that Arafat had to suspend the talks and summon his experts
for consultation. Camp David II produced a lot of talk and no agreement,
except that there would be more talks.
The self-deluding "honest" broker, Clinton, and his administration,
who are more a side in these negotiations than a referee, went after Arafat
as the sole person responsible for the failure of the Camp David talks.
Clinton and his foreign policy czarina, Madeleine Albright, then praised
Barak for his flexibility on concessions. This was in essence the brick
that brought down the wall in Ramallah on Roshshashana. Clinton's open
and undiplomatic lambasting of Arafat signaled to his Palestinian detractors
that he does not have Clinton's ear and that Clinton himself was not very
fair, much less an honest broker. The radical elements in the Palestinian
camp also saw first hand that Clinton's lambaste was a sign of frustration
that Arafat had not given away the store. The praise of Barak was not very
useful either. While it showed to the Israelis that Barak is a champion
of peace, it also showed to his detractors that he is willing to achieve
peace at any cost, by giving far greater concessions than most Israelis
The future status of Jerusalem and its control were identified as the
sticking point in the discussions. In the aftermath of Clinton's criticism
of Arafat, the Palestinians and Israelis began talking about Jerusalem
as their undivided city, and each side put out the usual "over my
dead body" response. Clinton's ambassador to Israel let it be known
that a joint sovereignty over the city was something that was being considered.
Meanwhile, the Pope chimed in, "Not so fast, boys. We as Christians
have something to say about who controls Jerusalem, too." Meanwhile,
the September 13th deadline for a comprehensive agreement had come and
gone and Arafat had decided not to announce the creation of the Palestinian
state, yet. He lost even more face as he agreed to please Clinton and let
the failed talks go on a little longer.
With the U.S. elections looming, the candidates find themselves in a
religious/ethnic triple-play. There is the Jewish vote: Mrs. Clinton shamelessly
walked a mile the other day, along with her Republican rival, showing solidarity
for peace and seeking the Jewish vote in New York's senatorial race. At
Wake Forest, George W. Bush and Al Gore restated the desire for peace in
the Middle East and pledged America's support for the safety and security
of Israel. As for the Palestinians, Gore said that they should dampen the
violence; Bush said that they should draw back from the flashpoints. The
Gore campaign then canceled a meeting with Arab-American groups in Michigan.
The Christian electorate would want some say in the future of Jerusalem,
too. Given these positions by the candidates, it will be hard to see how
the next U.S. president can have any moral authority as an honest broker.
After much cajoling, Clinton pressured Egypt's President Mubarak to
host a summit where Clinton, Arafat, Barak and the U.N. Secretary General,
Kofi Annan, can sit and yak about what went wrong. More significant than
the fact of the meeting is the meeting place itself. Clinton has figured
out that Egypt, the first to make peace with Israel, is the natural guardian
of the peace process and this meeting is like the passing of the torch
from Clinton to Mubarak as the custodian of the peace process until the
next U.S. president takes office. Mubarak is no dummy, but it remains to
be seen if he has the guts to say, "Thanks Bill; but, no, thanks."
Lest one forgets, the peace process's first dead hero and political casualty
was Mubarak's own predecessor, the late Anwar Sadat.
In a populated environment, wired to blow at the drop of a pin, the
art of bringing down the walls of separation requires that it be done patiently,
one brick at a time, and from the top to bottom. Clinton's approach sought
to remove the loose bricks first, regardless of the consequences and their
place in the wall. At the end, the supports that held it all together proved
too weak to support the deluge caused by Clinton's own ill-conceived and
outspoken criticism of Arafat. Lest be left unnoticed, in many ways, Arafat
has been one of the main architects of the peace process, outlasting many
a leader. Deriding Arafat as if he were a dirt ball will not serve the
cause of peace.