Souvenirs from the Middle East

October 29, 1994

If President Clinton hit no home run on his Middle East trip, he touched many bases.

He basked in the glory of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty, which was negotiated without U.S. help. He inserted himself into the stalled Syria-Israel dialogue, with no visible result. He preached the menace of Hamas to Yasser Arafat, who as target understands it better than anyone. He asserted his presence as commander-in-chief to the American troops in Kuwait, who never doubted his authority.

There are two messages here -- one aimed at the world, one at himself and fellow-Americans.

The first is that the United States through its president plays a major role in the Middle East and will stick to that role no matter who or what happens in American politics.

The second is that there is no such thing as a domestic affairs president. The United States is the most powerful country, and its leader is the most important world leader. The president can neglect his performance or do it poorly, but he cannot make the role vanish. Better to relish it. Success or failure abroad will always help or hurt at home, and vice versa.

The Jordan-Israel peace treaty is a great breakthrough, promising cooperation in economic and water resource development. It affirms peace on Israel's longest border, restricting the military land threat to the short northern border with Lebanon and Syria. It leads into Israel's unprecedented inclusion in a regional economic conference to be convened tomorrow in Casablanca by King Hassan II of Morocco.

Two frustrations of Mr. Clinton's trip testify to the obstacles remaining in the way of Middle East peace. One is the absence of any visible action by Syria's President Hafez el Assad to curtail the terrorism that his regime at least tacitly supports in Lebanon. Holding it out as a bargaining chip is not good faith. The link between Israeli withdrawal from Golan and Syrian peace with Israel is there for all to see. Conceptually, this agreement is the easiest of all that need to be made. Whatever Mr. Clinton hoped to achieve by visiting President Assad, he did not. But he took a risk worth taking.

The second great frustration was the inability of President Clinton to visit the holy sites in Jerusalem without making an unacceptable gesture of support to one territorial claimant to the detriment of U.S. standing with others. Even Mrs. Clinton restricted her personal visit, with Israeli accompaniment, to a Jewish site. It did not help that Jerusalem's mayor is a Likud politician opposed to the Labor government's concessions to the PLO.

Mr. Clinton's experience is a valuable souvenir from the Holy Land. Jerusalem is a seemingly intractable problem. A tourist is free to see holy sites. So long as a U.S. president on an official visit is not, the need remains for strong U.S. initiatives in Middle East peace-making.

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