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Clinton kept eye on Mideast prize, but fell short
Despite his persistent efforts, Middle East prize eluded Clinton
By Matthew E. Berger
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
January 24, 2001
WASHINGTON, Eight years after walking into the White
House, President Clinton
leaves with significant accomplishments in the Middle East.
Clinton and his team of negotiators and advisers were unable to put the
final nail in the coffin of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But few would label his actions in the Middle
East a failure.
There are tangible changes in the region, and hope remains -- despite
the latest flare-up of violence -- that
the two sides will continue the progress they have made since the 1991
But it may be years before we can truly assess the Clinton era's impact
on the Middle East peace process.
``I would like to think that when historians look back on this period,
they will say this 10-year period
created a foundation on which a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict
be based," said Aaron Miller, who was
deputy special Middle East coordinator in the Clinton State Department.
It's still unclear what role Miller will play in the Bush
administration. Maps of the Middle East rest on the
floor of his State Department office as he awaits his next assignment. Those
maps, the blueprints to the Clinton
team's work over the last eight years, await a new owner.
Miller and the U.S. Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, were the point men
on the Clinton team who forged
many of the relationships and hammered out many of the agreements in the
region. Ross, who is leaving the State
Department, said he believes the parameters for peace that Clinton set forth
before leaving office will form the
framework of an eventual agreement.
``He took on the greatest taboos and helped to demystify them," Ross
told JTA last week in New York
after addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish
Organizations. ``I'm not sure that anyone
else could have done it."
Middle East analysts credit Clinton for his ability to appeal to both
Israeli and Palestinian leaders, gaining
their respect and trust.
``No matter how it turns out, he will be considered the person who
defied the laws of political gravity,"
said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near
East Affairs and former editor of the
Jerusalem Post. ``He did it by working this issue personally, devoting an
enormous amount of time and not just
being content to do photo-ops and signing ceremonies."
Makovsky calls Clinton both the most pro-Israel president ever -- and
the most pro-Palestinian. He
developed a father-son relationship with the late Israeli Prime Minister
Yitzhak Rabin, and was the first American
president to enter the Gaza Strip.
Clinton devoted more hours to meetings with Palestinian Authority
President Yasser Arafat than with any
other international leader, Makovsky said.
But it was more than just time.
Clinton used the same attributes in the international arena that won
praise domestically -- an ability to
reach out and touch people, empathize with their problems and show a genuine
interest in aiding them.
``There is a quality in negotiations that I would describe as empathy,
which is critically important for a
mediator," Miller said. ``It's the capacity and ability to listen and to
understand each side's perspective without
necessarily sympathizing or agreeing to the point where you eliminate your
ability as a mediator. That capacity was
his real strength."
Despite his negotiating qualities, part of Clinton's success stemmed
simply from the fact that he appeared
at the right point on the Middle East timeline.
``He was handed a remarkable gift when the Israelis and the PLO
secretly signed the Oslo agreement,
brought it to the White House and asked him to bless it," said Shibley
Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace
and Development at the University of Maryland.
As a legal adviser to Israel's Foreign Ministry, Joel Singer was one
the negotiators of the Oslo accords.
He said Clinton used the opportunities to his advantage.
``Even though the circular history began to be ripe for negotiations
between Israel and its neighbors during
his presidency, Clinton was quick to grasp the opportunity and was always
ready to jump into the cold water,"
But Clinton's personal attributes sometimes have backfired on him.
He has been widely criticized for bringing Arafat and Barak to Camp
David last summer to try to seal a
deal before the Oslo interim agreement's deadlines passed. Clinton believed
his powers of persuasion would be
enough to push the two sides toward an agreement, Makovsky said.
Ultimately, the time proved unripe. Arafat walked away from a deal,
Barak's willingness for compromise
cost him his majority in the Knesset, and the standoff eventually erupted in
the violent Palestinian uprising of the
past four months.
Miller, who was part of the Camp David negotiating team, said bringing
the sides together was an attempt
to prevent the situation from spinning out of control.
``Had we not gone to Camp David, and had we ended up with violent
confrontation in September, the
same critics who now accuse us of not understanding the nature of the
difficulty would have said to us, 'Why didn't
you try?' " Miller said.
``In the end, policy very often becomes the choice between very
imperfect alternatives," he said.
Clinton's actions in the Middle East were far from perfect.
Even supporters like Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to
the United States and current
president of Tel Aviv University, said the peace negotiations erred in
focusing solely on the actions of the
leadership, rather than on selling the peace proposals to the people.
Speaking to JTA by telephone, Rabinovich also said the Clinton
admistration was mistaken not to punish
one side or the other for flouting the agreements or leaving the bargaining
``Each side has to take into account that in the end, peace is not
the purview of the elites," Miller said.
``It has to be the property of the public."
Clinton also has been accused of trying to move too fast in peace
negotiations, and forcing the parties to
adapt to his timetable.
That charge was made indirectly by President George W. Bush during the
presidential debates, and was
illustrated in the last few months of Clinton's administration, as he rushed
to bring the parties together before his
``The role President Clinton played in trying to have his own
-- although with a great deal of
input from the Israelis and Palestinians -- might have put more pressure
the whole process," said Ronald
Lauder, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish
Organizations. ``The future role of the
American president should be as a facilitator, not as an originator."
Despite Clinton's years of work, his departure from office is
overshadowed by several months of violence,
the worst to hit the region since the Oslo accords. Analysts said the latest
violence is not unexpected, given that the
leaders are now focusing on permanent solutions to the real issues.
As Bush assumes the White House, the end of the Clinton saga may not be
imminent. The door is open for
him to continue to play a role in negotiations. If an agreement is reached
the near future, Clinton's efforts will be
heralded, Telhami said.
``If the Israelis and Palestinians manage to get an agreement between
them, even on George W. Bush's
clock, it will be because of the ground Clinton made," Telhami said.
``History will look back and say, 'This was an
amazing period.' ''
© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.