Looking back on eight years of trying to reason, cajole and occasionally bully Israel and the Palestinians into signing a final peace settlement, President Clinton acknowledges that the issue has been the hardest he has ever tried to resolve.
But with only three weeks left in his second term, Clinton refuses to stop trying, even though the chances of success are becoming increasingly forlorn. So it was that he devoted his last Christmas week in the White House to one more intensive effort, hoping to crown his presidency with substantial progress toward a Middle East accord that has proved elusive for more than 50 years.
All logic seems to say he should give up and leave the quarreling factions to his successor, President-elect George W. Bush. Clinton, however, says he can’t do that.
“None of us who long for peace in the Middle East would ever give up on it,” he said late last week. But he added: “This is the most difficult of all the issues I’ve dealt with.”
On Dec. 23, Clinton broke one of the rules that governed his effort for most of his tenure: Never give the Israelis or Palestinians a comprehensive U.S. plan to shoot at. The strategy was to leave it to the two sides to negotiate a settlement without Washington’s seeming to dictate terms.
But on the Saturday before Christmas, Clinton unveiled an American plan endorsing Palestinians’ demands for sovereignty in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem but supporting the Israeli refusal to permit Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes in what is now Israel.
Administration officials insisted that the plan was an amalgam of positions put forward by Israel and the Palestinians at the Camp David summit in July and since. But it satisfied neither party.
However, when Israel’s caretaker prime minister, Ehud Barak, said he would accept the Clinton proposal as a basis for negotiations if the Palestinians would, the president broke another of his unwritten rules: He blamed one side, in this case Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, for causing a continuing impasse.
Clinton’s response illustrates how much he wants to kick the talks into gear in his presidency’s waning days.
Pointing the finger at only one side is a diplomatic doomsday weapon to be used only when everything else has failed--and only with the realization that it might cause substantial collateral damage. Clinton tried it once before in his dealings with the Israelis and the Palestinians, when he blamed Arafat for the breakdown of the Camp David summit.
It didn’t work then, and Palestinian officials have said that it eroded Arafat’s trust in Clinton as an honest broker.
But the president deployed the weapon again Thursday, in effect telling Arafat that he would have to choose--either achieve his objective of a Palestinian state or continue to nurture ancient grudges. There is no way to do both, Clinton said.
“There is no point in our talking further unless both sides agree to accept the parameters that I’ve laid out, not because I’m trying to dictate this but because I’ve listened to them for months and months and months--indeed for eight years--and if there is a peace agreement here, I’m convinced it’s within the four corners I laid out,” Clinton said.
Unlike at earlier stages in the drawn-out process, Clinton said that this time he was proposing the framework on a take-it-or-leave it basis. There was no possibility for negotiations on the general principles, he said, although there was plenty of room for talks on the details.
Both Israel and the Palestinians have asked pointed questions about possible details, but so far, Israel is the only one to accept the U.S. framework.
“Both have legitimately a lot of questions, and they ought to ask those questions and get answers to them, but there’s no point in even doing that unless we’ve got a basic framework so we can close,” Clinton said.
One nongovernment Middle East expert, who asked not to be named, said Clinton’s proposals are indeed very general. They have not even been put in writing, at least not by the White House.
“There are extremely few details,” this regional specialist said. “If the objective is to produce a statement of principle without detail, that can be achieved.”
Clinton has said that is not what he wants. He is aiming for a complete agreement that could write the final chapter to the conflict. But if he can get a statement of principle, he might be tempted to take it, attaining at least a theoretical victory.
However, many Middle East specialists say it would be a mistake for Clinton to try to forge an agreement without answering all of the questions posed by Israel and the Palestinians.
“This is a time for both sides to be clear,” said Shibley Talhami, a University of Maryland professor who is an expert on Middle East politics. “If we look at the experience of the past seven years since [Israel and the Palestinians negotiated an interim agreement in] Oslo, things were frustrating because of the vagueness.
“Now they have to operate not on the basis of goodwill but on the basis of clarity,” Talhami added. “That may mean that there isn’t time for agreement” before Clinton leaves office Jan. 20.
But Clinton insists that there is still time. Just not much.
“I honestly believe, given the pendency of the [February] Israeli election and the developments within the Palestinian community and the larger Arab world, that the best chance they have to make an agreement is in the next three weeks,” Clinton said in his remarks last week. “This is not going to get any easier, and prolonging it is only going to make it worse.”