Outgoing US President Bill Clinton appears to have finally given up on his long quest to forge a landmark Israeli-Palestinian peace pact before leaving office, as his special Mideast envoy Dennis Ross on Wednesday postponed a planned trip to the region. The move is a setback to the electoral hopes of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who wanted Clinton to issue a "presidential declaration" on the status of negotiations to aid his waning chances for retaining office in early February balloting.
After exhausting much of his presidential clout on Middle East diplomacy, only to see it go up in smoke due to the renewed Palestinian intifada, Clinton in recent weeks attempted one last time to broker an elusive peace deal. The initiative came in the form of Clinton's verbal "outline of principles" for a final-status agreement, which he required both sides to accept as the basis for further negotiations to be concluded before he exits the White House on January 20. At the core of the plan, Israel was to recognize Palestinian sovereignty in eastern Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, in exchange for the Palestinians abandoning hard-line demands for full implementation of the "right of return" to Israel for millions of refugees.
Viewing it as his only route back to power, Barak accepted the Clinton outline with reservations and provided the Palestinian Authority accepted it as well. PLO chief Yasser Arafat, however, called the plan "vague" and took so much time in responding, Clinton had little room left on the calendar to complete the negotiating process. Eventually, the PA delivered an unmistakable "no," charging the Clinton blueprint fell short of what they feel are their entitlements under UN resolutions, especially on the refugee issue.
After Clinton hosted Arafat in Washington last week, the plan appeared to have new life when Barak sent key negotiator Gilad Sher to the US capitol for follow-up discussions with the Administration. Sher delivered a six-page document to Clinton last Friday evening that formalized Israel's acceptance of the president's peace proposals and listed Israel's reservations. Among them are objections on how to handle dividing up the disputed territories, the formulation of the right of return, Jerusalem holy sites, and the positioning of Israeli forces in the Jordan Valley. But with his poll numbers plummeting, especially due to the required Israeli concessions in Jerusalem, Barak reassured Israelis the talks were now focusing primarily on renewed three-way security cooperation.
The ensuing security talks in Cairo over the weekend fared poorly, however, and Clinton all but admitted defeat Sunday night at a gala send-off sponsored by the dovish Israel Policy Forum in New York. For the first time, Clinton publicly disclosed his proposals for a final resolution of the conflict. "There is no choice but for [Israel] to divide this land into two states for two peoples," said Clinton, who also called on the PA "not to hold out for the impossible more," especially on the right of return.
Clinton sketched out the five parameters of his plan, which includes compromises on a non-militarized Palestinian state, security arrangements, refugees and Jerusalem, plus an "end of the conflict" declaration. Clinton blamed both sides for perpetuating the current violence, and offered suggestions on how to curb the fighting.
"The parties' experience with the interim accords has not always been happy," said Clinton. "Too many deadlines have been missed, too many commitments unfulfilled - on both sides." As for anyone with other negotiation parameters in mind, Clinton said: "If they can come up with another agreement, so be it. But I doubt it."
"I've got 13 days and I'll do what I can," Clinton told the admiring audience at the end of his speech. "I think America will always be there for Israel's security, but I think Israel's long term security rests in a just and lasting peace."
In the days since, Barak has pushed Clinton to issue a "presidential declaration" formalizing his Middle East peace proposal, which would serve as a benchmark for future negotiations under President-elect George W. Bush. Some reports claimed the plan would be submitted to world leaders and even the UN Security Council for endorsement, in an attempt to bind Israel at a time when its people appear ready to reject the Clinton outline at the polls.
Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations via satellite on Monday, Barak advocated a Clinton declaration, perhaps modeled on his IPF speech the night before, which could serve as the basis of a new UNSC resolution to supersede previous resolutions like 242 and 338 and possibly UN General Assembly resolution 194 on the right of return. Barak contended that making Clinton's peace proposal part of the public record would place Israel "in much better shape to face the uncertainties that are awaiting us down the road... [since] it somehow pulls the international legitimization for belligerency against Israel from under the feet of our neighbors."
So when Clinton ordered Ross to make one final shuttle mission to the region on Wednesday, the Israeli press speculated that it was to seek approval for the text of such a presidential statement. But Ross was held back at the last minute, after Arafat spoke with Clinton by telephone late last night and then held talks in Gaza with Israeli Cabinet minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak early this morning. One PA source today said the Ross trip is merely postponed, while another claimed it was canceled altogether. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright later said the Ross trip was postponed in order to give direct bilateral talks on security a chance to first reduce the violence.
Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo yesterday voiced PA opposition to anything less than a full treaty. "Peace cannot be declared, it must be achieved," Abed Rabbo wrote in a two-page statement outlining their current negotiating position.
Interestingly, a number of career diplomats at Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs also expressed strong reservations about the impact on Israel's positions of a declaration by Clinton. And former ambassadors Zalman Shoval and Dore Gold, who serve as diplomatic advisors to the opposition Likud party, joined party chairman Ariel Sharon in warning that such a declaration or agreement would not be considered binding if Sharon comes to power next month. Sharon yesterday declared the Oslo process dead because the Palestinians resorted to violence, but this evening launched his official campaign for the premiership by telling Likud loyalists peace would require compromises and agreements.
In perhaps the clearest sign of the crumbling relations between the two sides, Abed Rabbo and Palestinian media darling Hanan Ashrawi told a press conference in Ramallah today that Barak and senior IDF officers should be tried as "war criminals" by an international tribunal. The head of the Palestinian negotiating team charged, "The [Palestinian] Authority demands to bring Ehud Barak and the Israeli military leadership to trial before an international war-crimes tribunal for the cold-blooded murder of Palestinians by special execution units."
Lipkin-Shahak today said his 90-minute discussion with Arafat last night centered on finding ways to reduce friction. Israel has complained that the Palestinians are not doing enough to stop shooting attacks on Israelis and has demanded that the Palestinians resume coordination with Israel on preventing terror attacks by Islamic militants. The PA says they will not resume such coordination unless Israel lifts its closures on Palestinian areas and stops targeting militia leaders coordinating intifada operations.
Looking back, Clinton has struggled for six months to pick up the pieces of the diplomatic breakdown at the Camp David summit last July. Even before the renewed intifada plunged Israeli-Palestinian relations into crisis, the Clinton team was having trouble getting the parties to agree to place in writing the Camp David "understandings" - those areas where the Administration claimed real progress was made.
In similar fashion, the terms of the so-called Sharm e-Sheikh truce were simply announced by Clinton and never signed by the two sides. And finally, Clinton chose to verbally dictate his "outline of principles" to the two negotiating teams in the Oval Office some three weeks ago. In other words, the diplomatic process has regressed to the point that Clinton has become reluctant to put anything in writing and has not required signatures on anything the US does manage to commit to paper.
All sides are beginning to acknowledge that for Clinton "the game is basically up," an Israeli official said today. Now, the task of simply summing up for Bush where to find the "end of the string" may prove a difficult and sobering exercise.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.