Clinton's huge rabbit's foot

Sandy Grady

September 13, 1993|By Sandy Grady

BILL Clinton has shown he has the greatest gift a politician can own, better than smarts or savvy or steel. He has the gift of luck.

For President Clinton, the astounding peace between Israel and the Palestinians is like hitting a zillion-dollar lottery without paying for a ticket.

Fourteen years ago on a bright, sunny day on the White House lawn, euphoric Jimmy Carter raised the hands of Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat in triumph.

"Let there be no more war between Israelis and Arabs," Sadat said in an ecstatic, empty prophecy. "No more despair, no more broken faith."

President Carter sweated, argued, banged hands, read biblical verses and wrestled relentlessly with Sadat and Begin for 13 days on a Camp David mountaintop. The Camp David accords were carved by Jimmy Carter's stubbornness.

If all went well over the weekend, Mr. Clinton today was to stand before worldwide TV cameras on the same White House lawn while leaders of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization sign a peace pact that shakes up history.

"This is a brave and courageous thing, a huge development, and I'm extremely happy," Mr. Clinton said.

In truth, it's a Clinton windfall, a bonanza from the blue.

Considering his other troubles, the president's like a guy besieged by bill collectors who hits the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. Much like George Bush when the Berlin Wall tumbled, he's exulting in history he didn't make.

Unlike Mr. Carter's hands-on matchmaking in the 1979 Israeli-Egypt peace, Mr. Clinton and U.S. diplomats were distant spectators to the Israel-PLO talks. The president didn't telephone one Mideast leader to push the process. Indeed, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher was on vacation when Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres called with the shocker: "I think we're making a deal . . ."

Even then, Mr. Clinton seemed cooly distant. "There's been a lot of these things before," he shrugged.

Now that he realizes he's fallen into a ton of luck, Mr. Clinton's more gracious: "This was so difficult and volatile, maybe the final agreement could only have been reached in a secret channel."

He's right, of course. Just as the United States can't be the World's Cop, neither can it always be the World's Diplomat. Sworn enemies like Israelis and Yasser Arafat must bridge hatreds their own way.

But ah, the irony! After 25 years, five presidents and armadas of jet-setting U.S. peacemakers, the Israel-PLO dealmaker is an unknown Norwegian named Johan Holst. The guy who hammered out the details over dinner in Oslo is a stamp-collecting wonk. It's like a .200 hitter busting up the World Series. Henry Kissinger, eat your heart out.

Doesn't mean a bunch of Americans, including some in Mr. Clinton's ranks, aren't taking bows for the Israel-PLO love feast.

Ex-Secretary of State James A. Baker III gives credit to Ronald Reagan, George Bush and, of course, James Baker. Mr. Baker, interviewed on CNN, pointed to the United States' "defeating communism in the Cold War" as eliminating Soviets as patrons of the renegade PLO. He boasted that the United States "defeated Arab radicalism" in the Persian Gulf war. "Those two things opened possibilities," Mr. Baker claimed.

While bragging, Mr. Baker didn't mention he let Middle East peace talks go to pot in mid-1992 while he ran Mr. Bush's campaign.

OK, Mr. Baker is right about the Soviet collapse stripping Yasser Arafat and the PLO of arms shipments and money. A penniless, desperate Mr. Arafat took a deal to tap the last semi-rich superpower, meaning the United States. He was like Willie Sutton explaining why he robbed banks: "That's where the money is."

How much dough (rumored at $3 billion) will Middle East peace cost U.S. taxpayers?

Asked at a White House briefing, a Clinton official said, "This isn't like aid to Russia." Instead of that multibillion U.S. bailout, he insisted that Japanese, Europeans and oil-rich gulf states would divvy up funds.

Maybe. But Mr. Clinton hints that U.S. money will make peace flourish. And U.S. troops step in if it flops . . .

"When I first met (Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin, he told me he was prepared to take risks for peace. I told him the United States would do everything to minimize those risks," Mr. Clinton said. "I reaffirm that today."

What Clinton honchos, the Israelis or PLO won't admit is that this deal was driven by fear. Ancient Arab-Jewish hatreds fade against the specter of Muslim extremists -- especially armed, ready-to-rumble Iran.

But bring on the joyfest. "We're planning a party," enthused a Clinton aide. Amid the festivities, it would be fitting to salute Presidents Carter, Bush and Nixon, Mr. Kissinger and the caboodle of Americans who hustled to end this hatred.

And let Bill Clinton glory in his Middle East bonanza. With all the sourness he inherited, he deserves a break.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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