Mideast peace process gives Clinton spotlight ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- President Clinton played essentially no role in the negotiations which led to the extraordinary ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House. But simply the fact the ceremony was held there demonstrates that the president of the United States inevitably plays a major role in the Middle East and world politics.

And this fact of life means, in turn, that Clinton's obvious preference for concentrating on pressing domestic questions sometimes must be put aside even if Americans may be far more concerned with their health insurance than peace in the Middle East.

At the most obvious level, the president remains a serious player in the region because the United States is still the prime guarantor of the security of Israel. That responsibility may not be the potential burden it once was but it is no less genuine.

The first imperative for the United States will be to play a major role in trying to minimize the extremist reaction against the peace agreement among both Israelis and Palestinians. That is the role Clinton was playing as the agreement was signed when he made a point of publicly urging Yasser Arafat to condemn the early violence against Israelis.

Equally important in the long run, however, is the part that the president can play in encouraging U.S. allies -- Japan, Germany, Britain and France most notably -- to participate in economic development in Gaza and other Palestinian centers. Those who know most about the situation there are persuaded that the best way to defuse the Palestinian resistance -- or at least limit it to the most extreme -- is to offer economic hope to a population that often has had unemployment rates of 40 percent or higher.

Clinton also can play a similar role with some Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, ironically because of the special prestige achieved there by his predecessor, former President George Bush, when he promulgated the war against Saddam Hussein almost three years ago.

In political terms, the historic agreement has little direct meaning for Clinton or his staggering administration. At the most primitive political level, the highest priority obviously is to reassure Jewish voters so important to the Democratic Party that there has been no lessening of the U.S. role as guarantor of Israeli security.

But the hard truth is that most Americans are less caught up in foreign policy issues than with their own bread-and-butter concerns over the state of the economy, health insurance and education. That is true even when there are breakthroughs as significant as this one in the Middle East.

In 1978, to cite the best example, then-President Jimmy Carter brokered the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt that until this week was the single most important development in the Middle East in two generations. But the week after Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David accord, Carter's approval rating rose only a single point in the Gallup Poll.

Moreover, although no one likes to talk about it publicly, political strategists know there is still significant anti-Semitism in the American electorate. It may not be acknowledged in polite company but it is not difficult to detect in opinion polls.

Thus, the bottom line for Clinton is that he must assume a heavy responsibility that may distract him from more pressing domestic concerns without any direct political benefit.

But it is also true that any president must demonstrate that he is capable of handling international affairs to be viewed with comfort by the electorate.

In Clinton's eight months in office, the new president has had a mixed record. Although he has handled the more routine responsibilities as steward of foreign policy with sure-handedness, Clinton has stumbled on one major issue -- his march up the hill and down again on two occasions on the role the United States and its allies should play in the horrific situation in Bosnia.

In the long run, the president will be judged by Americans mostly on the condition of the economy and perhaps whether he is able to achieve some reform of health care. But the historic agreement in the Middle East allows Bill Clinton to perform on the world stage and demonstrate that he belongs there.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.