CLINTON AND ARAB-ISRAELI PEACE
William B. Quandt
November 15, 1997
(Prepared for IFRI)
Since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, American policy toward the Arab-Israeli peace process has been adrift. In its early days, the Clinton Administration had concluded that the proper role for the United States was that of a "facilitator", helping the parties to reach agreement, but leaving the burden on them for setting the pace and finding the terms. The basic assumption behind this approach was that both the Israeli government and the Palestinians had reached the point where they were prepared to negotiate, and that heavy-handed American involvement might be counter-productive. Thus, the American focus was on procedure, not substance.
This approach was reinforced by the dramatic Oslo Accord, forged in secret talks between Israel and the PLO without direct American involvement. If the parties were capable of reaching agreement by this route, so much the better. And Clinton would always be available to preside over the signing of agreements, as he did on the south lawn of the White House on September 13, 1993.
It is worth noting that a somewhat different approach was adopted on the Syrian-Israeli front. There, Secretary of State Warren Christopher traveled endlessly to Damascus in a low-key version of shuttle diplomacy. It seems as if significant progress was actually made, but the negotiations were put on hold in summer 1995 so that Rabin could prepare for his reelection campaign without having to confront the charge that he had abandoned the Golan.
When Rabin was assassinated and the following spring Benjamin Netanyahu was elected as Israel's Prime Minister, the foundations of the American approach to Middle East peace should have been called into question. Netanyahu, after all, had opposed the Oslo Accords and had run on a platform that suggested he would not deal with the PLO and would refuse to negotiate on sensitive matters such as the future status of Jerusalem. Within the ranks of American officialdom, a debate began. Was Netanyahu as hard-line as he seemed, or was he really a pragmatic politician who had to strike poses in order to keep atop his fractious coalition? And if one were to conclude that Netanyahu was a probable obstacle to peace, as President George Bush had concluded about former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, what could be done about it?
President Clinton, to say the least, was not famous for his willingness to tackle controversial issues, especially if this might lead to a clash with pro-Israeli forces in Congress. So, the initial decision seems to have been to give Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt. In that spirit, the United States devoted considerable effort to reaching the Hebron Accord early in 1997. That agreement stated explicitly that Israel would determine on its own whether further withdrawals would be made during the interim period. The United States endorsed that position in a letter to Yasir Arafat. This seemed to represent a strong tilt toward Netanyahu. If he were to decide that no further withdrawals should occur, that would settle the matter. Israeli security, Clinton seemed to be acknowledging, was more important than anything else.
Policy sometimes changes when personnel changes, and Clinton’s second Administration, inaugurated in January 1997, did contain some important new faces. First of all, Madeleine Albright replaced Warren Christopher as Secretary of State. Her views on the Middle East were not well known, but she was thought to harbor a strong sympathy for the Israelis, in part because of her long experience in dealing with domestic and Congressional politics. Early reports indicated, however, that she was not entirely pleased with the procedural bias of the "peace process" team and was open to the idea of a more assertive American role. She even contemplated the possibility, it is said of replacing the coordinator of the peace team, Dennis Ross, who had served in that position since the days of President Bush.
Change also took place at the White House, with Samuel Berger replacing Anthony Lake as adviser for National Security Affairs. Berger was a lawyer with international experience who had at one time been a supporter of "Peace Now", the dovish pro-Israeli lobbying group. But as Lake’s deputy, he had not shown much interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Like Albright, he was something of an unknown in terms of the role he would seek to play in Arab-Israeli peace talks. By late 1997, however, he was reportedly among those who felt that the time was approaching for the United States to abandon its "honest broker" role in favor of a more substantive position in which the United States would go on record concerning key aspects of a settlement.
One other newcomer joined the inner circle or foreign-policy makers, Thomas Pickering as Undersecretary of State of Political Affairs. Formerly an Ambassador to Jordan, to Israel, to the United Nations, and to Russia, Pickering is a highly skilled and much-admired professional. He knows the Middle East well and has sensible views. Those who have hoped for a more effective and energetic American role in pushing the peace effort forward -- and pressing the Israelis a bit in the process -- have been encouraged by Pickering's presence at State.
The remainder of the "peace team" -- Dennis Ross, Aaron Miller, and Martin Indyk -- remains in place, although Indyk has returned from being Ambassador in Israel to Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs. From time to time, one hears that Ross may be ready to quit, but these are merely rumors. Some have also noted -- in private -- the fact that nearly the entire "peace team" is Jewish and that it might be desirable to have a somewhat different mix of individuals, if only to give the impression to Arabs that their views are not automatically discounted by those with strong Zionist sympathies. To date, nothing has been done to change these perceptions, either in terms of public policy statements, or changes in personnel.
The three key members of the "peace team" have long been proponents of the "ripeness" theory which holds that the tempo of peacemaking must be left to the parties themselves. They frequently note that the United States cannot want peace more than the parties; that they must bear the responsibility for negotiating the details of any agreement and not expect (or fear) that the United States will impose its own blueprint. When Rabin and Arafat were moving forward, this approach had many adherents. Among other things, it entailed no domestic political costs. But Netanyahu's obstinacy and Arafat's weakness have raised serious questions about whether this approach can now work. Some observers note that Indyk, who was close to Rabin and has had his fill of Netanyahu, is prepared to urge a get-tough policy. But to date there is no evidence that he is so disposed or that he has much influence on policy.
Albright, it is said, has also tired of Netanyahu's antics, and, with Pickering's urging, has tried to persuade Clinton to take a firm line with the Israeli Prime Minister. Some have noted that Clinton did not meet Netanyahu during his November visit to the United States, and that critical comments have been made about Israeli settlement activity. But this amounts to very little. Netanyahu will be received at the White House on his next visit and there is little likelihood of a major confrontation on matters of substance. In fact, if Netanyahu shows even a minimum of flexibility on issues such as additional withdrawal and slowing down the pace of settlement activity -- the time out that Albright has requested -- the White House will be more than content.
And it is the White House that matters. Whenever suggestions have gone from State to the White House suggesting a firmer line with Netanyahu, they have been met with resistance. One must realize that Clinton, even though he need not worry about reelection, does have to worry about governing. Therefore, he needs support from Congress (both houses are under Republican control) and Israel is unquestionably still popular there. In addition, one must take into account that Vice President Albert Gore, who is widely believed to harbor ambitions to succeed Clinton in the Oval Office, is very close to the pro-Israeli community.
Within little more than a year, Clinton will be seen by more and more people as a lame duck, and Gore will be working hard to win support for his nomination and eventual election. In these circumstances, time will soon run out for White House leadership on the peace process, even if Clinton and Gore could decide that this was an issue of importance in terms of American national interest. It is not so much a matter of the votes of Jewish Americans, although these do matter; it is more the financial clout of the pro-Israeli organizations within the Democratic Party and in the form of Political Action Committees that direct money to Congressional candidates throughout the country. No serious contender for the Democratic Party nomination for President will gratuitously alienate these groups, the most noteworthy of which is the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). While AIPAC is no longer dominated by pro-Likud individuals as it was in the 1980s, it still is very opposed to any sign of public pressure on Israel, urging that differences always be handled in private for fear that anti-Israel sentiment might turn into anti-Semitic actions.
While many Americans are disappointed that the Oslo process seems to be unraveling, and some worry about the long-term trends in the Arab world that will be strengthened if moderate Arab regimes and leaders are discredited by a failure to achieve a decent settlement with Israel, there is, in fact, little sense of crisis. The Arab-Israeli conflict is one more messy problem of the post-Cold War world, but it certainly is not at the top of the list. The Gulf is viewed as of greater strategic importance, and few see a link between the stalemate in the Arab-Israeli arena, rising Arab frustrations, and Saddam's aggressive challenges to the coalition arrayed against him. We have lived with an unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict for so long, that a few more years of drift does not seem too alarming.
In any case, Oslo has succeeded in neutralizing Palestinian anger in a curious way. The objective situation for Palestinians is terrible, but they nonetheless have a stake in the current situation. To declare Oslo dead, Arafat would have to repudiate much of his recent diplomacy. And there is even some risk that Israel will reoccupy certain areas now under Palestinian authority. So the Palestinian leadership keeps returning to the table, even if the deck is stacked against them. Netanyahu knows that Arafat's threats are not to be taken too seriously, as does Clinton, and they have been correct so far in their judgment. This makes it difficult to convince the White House to abandon its incrementalist strategy in favor of a more assertive approach. Instead, the Americans will concentrate on trying to organize meetings, hoping that eventually something will come of it.
And it seems likely that something will come of all these efforts, but it will not be peace. Instead, Netanyahu seems more than capable of producing a proposal that will yield as much of half the territory of the West Bank and Gaza to Palestinian control, but these will be enclaves entirely surrounded by Israeli-controlled areas. In essence, when Netanyahu hints that he may be willing to consider something resembling a Palestinian state -- he has mentioned Puerto Rico as a model -- he seems to have in mind something like the Bantustans of South African notoriety. Arafat, and most Palestinians, will not accept this as a basis for peace, but they may simply be handed these territories and told to administer them. They can hardly refuse, but their underlying grievances will remain. Meanwhile, Netanyahu will feel free to continue with the de facto annexation of the remainder of the West Bank.
There is an outcome for the Arab-Israeli conflict that most Americans would prefer, including those in the Clinton Administration. Such a peace agreement would include a Palestinian state in most (80-90%) of the West Bank and Gaza, essentially demilitarized but economically viable; a parallel agreement between Syria and Israel concerning the Golan; normalization of Israel's relations with most of the surrounding Arab countries (something that was supposed to be advanced by the recent Doha economic summit, which proved to be a fiasco and a sign of diminished American influence). This all seemed attainable, even inevitable in the minds of some commentators, just two years ago. Now it is very far from reach and we have almost forgotten what the strategic rationale for such a settlement ever was in terms of American interests.
Just a few years ago, it was widely believed in Washington that a negotiated end to the Arab-Israeli conflict would help to bolster moderate, Western-oriented regimes (such as Mubarak, King Hussein, the Saudis), would isolate the Islamist radicals, would pressure Iraq and Iran to end their opposition to the idea of Arab-Israeli peace; would make it easier to deal with region-wide security problems such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and would even open the way for regional economic cooperation and integration into the world economy. Although few would openly acknowledge the link between American interests in the Gulf and success in the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, most officials understood that there was a connection. Imagine, for example, how much more difficult it would have been for the United States to deal with Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait had it not been for the cooperation of Egypt. And that cooperation was a function of the fact that Egypt and Israel were at peace and the United States was a major supporter of the Egyptian economy and security. Even the ability to draw Syria into the anti-Iraqi coalition depended to some degree on the linking of Syria's behavior in the Gulf conflict to subsequent U.S. activity in promoting the Middle East Peace Conference (which Syria was the first country to accept as a negotiating forum.)
Of course, the vision of a "new Middle East" was always quite optimistic, but at least there was a clear rationale for pursuing Middle East peace in terms of American national interests. Recently, it seems as if the mess in the Israeli-Palestinian part of the Middle East is seen more as an annoyance than a strategic threat. Perhaps a crisis will force the United States to reassess, as was the case in 1973 and 1991, but short of that one should not expect anything dramatic.
It should be noted that American policy could still evolve a bit, and that might give the impression of fundamental rethinking. For example, some in the Administration are in favor of going on record with the outlines of a final settlement. Secretary Albright has hinted in public that she might be prepared to take this course of action. This could lead to a reformulation of current American policy on Palestinian statehood, for example. At present, the United States does not favor such a state, but would not object if the parties were to reach an agreement long those lines. Some have argued for going on record as favoring such a state, with the proviso that it be demilitarized. And this could happen. But would it mean much? Would Clinton and Albright go into the details of the geography of the state, of the place of Jerusalem in its makeup, of the future of Israeli settlements now sprinkled throughout the West Bank? Would they take a stand on whether Palestinian refugees should have the right to return to such a state? It is much more likely that the Administration would say that these issues should be left to the parties to negotiate. But given the power realities, that means that the Israeli interpretation is likely to prevail, and that Netanyahu will have no trouble ignoring American policy statements that are not backed up by some form of pressure.
This analysis bring us back to the role of Congress. One rarely looks to Congress for leadership in foreign affairs -- it is simply to hard to get 535 individuals to act in a coherent manner over any period of time -- but in the past there have usually been senior Senators and Congressmen who had considerable experience in world affairs and were prepared to cooperate with the President to devise a bipartisan foreign policy. Those days are nearly gone. Many of the most knowledgeable members of the Senate and House have retired, or are about to do so. The newcomers tend to be more partisan and less experienced often disdaining foreign affairs altogether. Knowing little from their own experience, they are likely to be attentive to organized groups within their own districts (especially true of House members) or to the views of major fund-raisers. None of this makes for great foreign policy.
Congress is not only responsive to lobbies; the views of ordinary voters can also have a major impact. But for that to happen, the views of the public have to be articulated forcefully and over a period of time. And these days, the Arab-Israeli conflict is nowhere near the top of the agenda of average Americans. Public opinion polls show that there is still support for an active American role in support of Middle East peace; that most Americans would support a Palestinian state as part of a negotiated peace; and that aid for Egypt and Israel is still accepted as the price to be paid for underwriting peace in the region. One can add that Netanyahu is not a popular figure and that support for Israel in the public at large, especially among the young and in the minority communities, is fading. But this does not mean that there is a detectable groundswell of sentiment for the United States to go all-out for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement. If such a sentiment exists at all, it tends to be found among the small band of Middle East specialists, whose views are rarely solicited by either the Administration or Congress.
One might fairly conclude that the appearance of drift and lack of determination in American policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict is rooted in political realities that are unlikely to change in the near term. As a result, the only country that has a chance of breaking the Arab-Israeli impasse is unlikely to do so.