Flawed quest for Mideast peace leaves region in peril

Clinton tries mightily, achieves only deadlock

January 07, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Clinton has told the story of his first visit to the Middle East, as a 34-year-old ex-governor of Arkansas, accompanied by a church minister who somewhat improbably predicted that Clinton one day would occupy the White House.

"Just remember, God will never forgive you if you turn your back on Israel," the president remembered the pastor saying.

And he hasn't. In hundreds of talks with Middle East leaders, in grueling negotiating marathons at Wye Plantation and Camp David in Maryland and in Shepherdstown, W.Va., and in this month's frenzied, 11th-hour dash to push together a peace deal before he slips from the world stage, Clinton has devoted more energy to Israel and the Palestinians than any of his predecessors.

But the results haven't matched the effort.

Relations between Israel and its neighbors today are far less stable than when Clinton took office in 1993. That year he presided over the historic handshake ceremony between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, even though he had little to do with the negotiations that brought them to the White House lawn.

James Phillips at the Heritage Foundation in Washington contends that President-elect George W. Bush will inherit a Middle East landscape more dangerous than that confronting any new president since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981.

Even Clinton's supporters acknowledge that he failed to capitalize on the large advantages handed to him when he took office in 1993.

The Soviet Union's demise had deprived Syria and other bellicose Arab states of much of their clout. An allied victory over Iraq in the Persian Gulf war had produced a pro-Western Arab tilt, and a once-unthinkable agreement between Israel and Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization was about to launch the promising Oslo peace process.

"The situation today is very problematic for the Bush administration," said Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy, who nevertheless credits Clinton with several Mideast accomplishments. "There is today a greater threat of regional war than there was eight years ago."

Foreign policy analysts praise Clinton for keeping international economic sanctions against Iraq's dangerous Saddam Hussein for far longer than anyone thought possible, even though the embargo has sprung some leaks recently. And they credit him with helping to engineer an Israeli-Jordanian treaty and reopening a dialogue with Iran, as well as brokering the 1998 Wye River accord, which kept the Israeli-Palestinian peace process temporarily on track.

Nobody blames Clinton entirely or even mostly for the bloodletting between Israelis and Palestinians and the rising tensions that has caused in the region. Possible flaws in the structure of the peace process, balks and missteps by Israeli and Arab leaders, outrages by extremists and, above all, indelible ethnic enmities have all played their part. Perhaps the biggest setback to the peace process was the assassination of Rabin in 1995 by a right-wing Israeli.

But critics say that Clinton's demonstrated partiality to Israel - which observers say exceeds that of previous presidents - his willingness to ignore violations of previous agreements by both Israelis and Palestinians and his over-reliance on a personality-driven, cram-style approach to negotiations have made the Middle East situation worse.

"This is an administration that's been loaded with pro-Israel types. Clinton just doesn't seem to get that," said Augustus Richard Norton, a Middle East specialist at Boston University. "They've internalized the Israeli positions to such an extent that America ends up retranslating the Israeli negotiating positions."

The president's reliance on charm and sheer physical exertion has been on full display in recent days as he tries to coax and browbeat Arafat and Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak back to the bargaining table.

Clinton has been trying to revive talks since negotiations for a final peace treaty between the parties failed at Camp David in July, helping to spawn Israeli-Palestinian violence that has killed more than 350 and re-energized Arab bitterness toward Israel and the United States.

In the past three months, the parties have agreed on a truce that was immediately broken, scrapped a Barak-Arafat summit that was planned in Egypt and missed a Clinton-imposed deadline for agreeing to resume talks - only to be given a second deadline by the White House last week.

Clinton met in Washington with Arafat on Tuesday and with chief Israeli negotiator Gilead Sher on Friday, interspersing those discussions with intensive consultations with his top foreign policy advisers and phone calls to Barak and Arab leaders.

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