Bush Administration to Steer New Course in Mideast

Monday, August 27, 2001 | Tag Cloud Tags:

On his last full day in office, US President Bill Clinton gave the incoming Bush administration some unsolicited advice on how to handle foreign policy, but with the Middle East still sliding towards conflict, clearer heads are urging a complete reassessment of the Clinton approach to regional peace-making.

In the final hours of his presidency – considered by many Israelis and American Jews as the most Israel-friendly ever – Clinton urged President-elect George W. Bush to stay engaged in global affairs in order to protect not only American interests, but also those of US allies abroad. He also sent emotional farewell letters to Israelis and Palestinians through local newspapers Friday, appealing to both to continue peace efforts despite the current round of violence.

Clinton has spent countless hours engaged in Mideast peacemaking, hosting several summits on the Palestinian and Syrian peace tracks, only to come up short of a landmark deal to cap his tenure, despite the generosity of current Israeli leader Ehud Barak. Instead, PLO chief Yasser Arafat has plunged the region into crisis by preparing for and prolonging a renewed intifada. In one final diplomatic gamble, Clinton last month offered bridging proposals to try to narrow remaining gaps in negotiating positions, but eventually ran out of time and options for closing a deal.

In Clinton’s letter to Israelis, which took up most of the front page of YEDIOT AHARONOT, he admitted that “the current round of violence has shattered your confidence in the peace process.” But he counseled them, “Don’t give up on the pursuit of peace. Not now, when it is almost within reach.” He warned that even if there is more conflict and violence, in the end the issues will remain the same. He added that he has recommended that the IAF be allowed to buy the most advanced US fighter aircraft, the F-22, when sales begin, which he cited as the latest example of his efforts to maintain Israel’s defenses.

In smaller articles on the front pages of Palestinian papers AL QUDS and AL AYYAM, Clinton praised Arafat’s “courageous leadership” and reiterated support for the right of the Palestinians to determine their own future in their land. He said he recognizes the daily humiliation and suffering the Palestinians face, but called on them “not to think in terms of revenge, which would not lead to anything but more bloodshed and death,” according to the Arabic translation. He also called on Palestinians “to take the final step now, to achieve God’s will for your future and your children… None of your achievements were made through violence, and nothing can be advanced except by negotiations and peace.”

On Wednesday, Barak had sent a warm parting letter to Clinton, saying that history will “honor and salute” him for his peace-making efforts in the Middle East. “Since the establishment of our state in 1948,” Barak noted, “every American president has supported Israel and for that we are eternally grateful. Mr. President, your contribution and concern was very unique.”

But members of Bush’s team have criticized Clinton for his extensive personal involvement in the peace process, saying that to preserve the prestige of the office, the president should leave negotiating to lower-level officials and confine his role to finalizing accords and signing treaties.

Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell, in a congressional hearing on his nomination on Wednesday, pledged that the new administration will also “seek a lasting [Mideast] peace, based on unshakable support for the security of Israel, the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people, our friendships in the Arab world, and a hard-headed recognition that the parties themselves must make the peace.

But he specifically called on Arafat to stop Palestinian violence. “I believe it is in the power of the Palestinian leadership and Mr. Arafat to do so,” Powell said, “and so we will call on him to do that and encourage him to do that and only then can we see what the next step in this process is going to be.”

Powell added that “it all begins with making absolutely sure that Israel is secure. The only democracy in the region, a nation we have supported for 50 years, it has to be secure and it has to feel that it is secure and that it can defend itself. And we cannot expect Israel to do much in conditions of violence, where their security is at risk.”

The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is expected to win unanimous Senate approval and then to spearhead for Bush any diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East, which will be based on looking at the broader picture: “[We] pledge to focus our efforts on the region as a whole, and not just on the peace process standing alone,” Powell said.

The Bush team has indicated that, in principle, they will be more supportive of democratic countries, a stand which favors Israel, while taking a tougher line against anti-democratic regimes, which could include nearly all of Israel’s regional adversaries, but in practice likely means Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and Sudan. Bush also plans to develop anti-ballistic missile shields over the objections of Russia and China.

Many leading US and Israeli strategic analysts concur that, although Clinton was the most personally involved president in the Middle East, this came at the expense of US prestige. There is a general sense that Clinton raised Arab expectations too high, after assuming his persuasive abilities alone could produce peace deals involving Syria and the Palestinians. The general view is that the Clinton team erred by ignoring Arafat’s refusal to end incitement and prepare his people for compromise on Jerusalem, the “right of return” and other core issues.

Most also agree that, on balance, Clinton is handing Bush a much more dangerous Middle East than when he took office eight years ago. The buzz-word for now is maintaining “security” in the region, rather than actively pursuing peace. They suggest and expect Bush and Powell to take a more “hands off” approach to allow the parties to reach their own understandings.

Ambassador Dore Gold, Israel’s former top envoy to the UN, summarized this week: “The Middle East is a much more dangerous region now than it was in 1993, when Clinton took office. Iraq is no longer under UN monitoring, Iran is testing intermediate-range missiles, and Russia is transferring advanced missile technology to Iran and opposing America’s leadership in the UN Security Council on Iraq. It is little wonder that that the American position in this region is eroded, and that the peace process looks the way it does.”

Even Clinton’s retiring special Mideast envoy Dennis Ross was unusually candid in recent days about where things went wrong. In an interview with PBS’s Jim Lehrer on Tuesday night, Ross described the current situation as one of his lowest moments since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. “The current period is very difficult as well, because we have come so far and gotten so close. To then see us in this kind of period which raises questions again about the underpinnings of the process, it’s obviously not an easy way to be concluding my tenure,” Ross said.

Ross attributed the downswing in events to Palestinian frustration that has “built up over the years” and to Israeli disillusionment with the process. Ross said the basic lesson he has drawn is that “the gap between the negotiators themselves or the leaders and the realities on the street has got to be reduced if you are going to reach an agreement of this nature.

In remarks on Wednesday to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the normally tight-lipped Ross blamed both Israelis and Palestinians for failing to implement peace precepts and warned both sides against unilateral steps.

“The Palestinians have not done nearly enough to prepare their public for peace, and they have continued to socialize grievance.” Israelis, he said, have continued house demolitions, “arbitrary behavior at checkpoints,” and settlement expansion. “There’s going to have to be truth-telling,” he said.

“In recent days I’ve heard people say Oslo is dead,” he continued. “The logic of Oslo was… to build a spirit of cooperation to lead to permanent status.” The spirit of cooperation does not exist at the moment, said Ross.

Ross concluded: “My perspective is that the basic outlines that President Clinton raised probably do reflect where we eventually [will] see an agreement, if not now, then somewhere down the road.” He added, however, “the new administration, when it comes in, will have every right to shape its own views, make its own assessments and shape its own forms.”

And in an interview with THE JERUSALEM POST this week, Ross said the Palestinian leadership misled its public about what would be achievable through negotiations and has missed an historic opportunity for a peace settlement with Israel. He suggested Palestinian opponents of Clinton’s proposals are the descendants of those Arabs who rejected past schemes for sharing the Land of Israel and later regretted it.

“The Palestinians have to do more to tell the truth to their own public about what’s possible and what isn’t possible,” Ross told the POST. He also largely agreed with the Israeli assessment that the Palestinians were guilty of spawning the wave of violence in late September after deciding their goals could not be achieved through negotiations. “It is difficult to see what possible stake Israel has in violence and there are clearly some on the Palestinian side who seem to think violence serves their cause,” he said.

And when asked what was the one thing he wished he had done differently, Ross responded: “I think the whole people-to-people approach, the whole need to ensure that there isn’t incitement, that there isn’t socialization of hostility. If there is one thing I wish we had done more effectively, that’s it.”

The entire Ross interview may be accessed on the JERUSALEM POST on-line site at .

Ross first served in the US State Department under President Ronald Reagan, and has held the post of special Mideast envoy under Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton. After more than 12 relentless years pursuing peace, Ross plans to rejoin the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank originally spun off from AIPAC that he used to direct in the early 1980s along with Martin Indyk, a fellow peace processor under Clinton.

Indyk has been credited with formulating the Clinton policy of “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran, but in many respects the only country he has “contained” is Israel. Indyk has been asked by Bush to stay on as US ambassador in Tel Aviv for at least six months, while Ross assistant Aaron Miller likely will stay at the State Department for a while to provide Powell with some “institutional memory” of where things stand.

Ironically, Ross returns to a WINEP that has just issued the results of study by a 52-member blue-ribbon panel advising Bush and company to “assess the lessons of the Oslo experience” and “explore alternative paths to peace” between Israel and the Palestinians. The study stresses that “there is no strategic alternative to the diplomatic process,” but adds that “there are, however, different paths the parties could take to achieve progress toward peace.”

The study concludes “the top Middle East priority for a new president is to prevent a descent to regional war. The current fighting between Israelis and Palestinians could degenerate into wider regional war either through design or miscalculation.” The authors of the report see the Lebanese-Israeli border as “the most serious ‘hot zone’ for potential hostilities.” The formula proposed for deterring regional war includes as its first “ingredient” a need for “affirming the ‘unwritten’ alliance with Israel.”

The study group also recommended that the secretary of state should manage the US role in the peace process, rather than the president, and that future US relations with a Palestinian state should be gauged according to how much a future Palestine embraces Western values of democracy, toleration, respect for the rule of law, and peace.

Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.

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