As master of the dramatic ceremonies here Wednesday, President Clinton was addressing three disparate audiences: the anxious Israeli public, the restive Palestinian population and the wider Arab world.
But his appearance and remarks here were also aimed at a fourth critical constituency: the American electorate, which will be called upon in November to render a vote of confidence on his governance.
No member of the president’s large entourage in this Red Sea resort would dare breathe a word about the possible political benefit of Clinton’s latest foray abroad as global peace broker.
But one man’s presence was ample testament to the domestic political element of this trip--Hollywood producer Mort Engelberg, who was here filming Clinton for use in political advertising.
Among the priceless images Engelberg will return with are Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak praising Clinton on Wednesday as “a statesman of vision and courage” and Clinton, head bowed, praying at the grave of slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin today.
The portrayal of Clinton as statesman is an acknowledged piece of the president’s reelection strategy. Aides say the next few months will be devoted to burnishing Clinton’s credentials as the catalyst for peace in Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Northern Ireland and, once again, the Middle East.
As Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas consolidates his position as the presumptive GOP nominee, Clinton and his aides are avoiding overt political rhetoric and activities--in the United States.
But he is aggressively availing himself of opportunities to capture the spotlight as the moral and ceremonial leader of the nation and its allies around the world.
Asked directly whether Clinton was milking the “Summit of the Peacemakers” for domestic political dividends, a senior White House aide merely smiled and said, “He’s just doing his job.”
This sort of summitry is as much political theater as substance, and Clinton excels at the language and imagery of compassion. Broadening his audience from Israel and the Palestinians to the wider group of Arab nations represented at Sharm el Sheik, Clinton said: “Many of the nations here today have experienced the nightmare of terror. Death does not discriminate among the terrorists’ victims.”
Expressing his concern for the suffering of the Palestinians, Clinton said: “The hard-won achievements of the Palestinian people are under direct assault. The merchants of terror would sell out their future and trade their dreams for despair. And Arab mothers and fathers who seek a better life for their children understand the enemies of peace have targeted them as well.”
But the chief object of the president’s attentions was the Israeli people, as the rest of his schedule on this two-day visit made evident.
Upon his arrival in Jerusalem on Wednesday night, Clinton paid a call on Israeli President Ezer Weizman.
Today’s schedule combines a display of public mourning for Rabin and victims of the recent wave of terrorist bombings in Israel with several events designed to show support for Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who has tried to keep the peace process alive while battling terror with all available weapons.
Clinton’s visit comes as Peres’ tenure is in grave jeopardy in elections scheduled for late May. The conservative Likud Party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is advocating a much tougher line toward the Palestinians and a slowing of the pace of returning Israeli-held land to Palestinian control.
Clinton has scheduled a pro forma 15-minute visit with Netanyahu today, the meeting’s brevity underlining Clinton’s desire that the path that Peres has chosen not be closed off by Likud hard-liners.
In this--as in Clinton’s other global peacemaking efforts--lie considerable risks, not only to American prestige but also to Clinton’s domestic standing.
A Netanyahu victory in May could be interpreted as a rebuff to Clinton and his chosen candidate and could raise questions about the president’s judgment.
Likewise, the fragile cease-fire in Bosnia could evaporate as the spring thaw approaches in the Balkans, possibly raising doubts about the complex, U.S.-brokered partition plan there.
And already the Northern Ireland peace Clinton helped promote last year is threatened by a renewal of Irish Republican Army terror attacks.
But while the risks are considerable, so are the potential rewards. With Clinton’s ability to maneuver domestically hamstrung by the Republican Congress and the constraints of an election year, foreign policy is the one area where he can operate relatively unhindered.
He may have been thinking of his electoral prospects as well as his hopes for a renewal of the search for reconciliation in this tortured region when he said on Wednesday, “Let our charge go forth from the Sinai today, we will win the battle for peace.”