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Crooked wall
Blind support for Israel undermines U.S. as peace broker

October 16, 2000
The Iranian

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 water closet.

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 could stomach.

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.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to the author Guive Mirfendereski

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