When something is worth doing, it should be worth doing for its own sake. Unfortunately, that does not seem to have been the motivation for U.S. forays into Middle East diplomacy during the Clinton years. As in so many other instances, the me-president has managed to take front and center. This was true from the moment on the White House lawn in 1993, when a beaming Mr. Clinton literally gave a little shove to Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to make them shake hands. And it has been true no less of the most recent round of Camp David negotiations, which has now resulted in violent confrontation between Palestinians and Israelis. For the American president to play the dramatic lead as peacemaker is clearly of overriding importance.
More evidence of Mr. Clinton’s relentless quest for a Nobel Peace Prize surfaced this week as two Norwegian public relations officials and one member of the Norwegian parliament confirmed to Fox News that the White House had lobbied for Mr. Clinton to be honored with the Nobel prize this year for his efforts as Middle East mediator. Mr. Clinton’s name was indeed on the list of 150 nominees, but in Norway it is considered very bad form actually to put your own name forward. Not only had the White House in May petitioned the Norwegian MP to push for Mr. Clinton’s nomination, it also appears to have retained a public relations firm at the cost of a six-figure contract to conduct a quiet campaign on the president’s behalf. All of which is really too appalling and it serves him just right that the prize went to a far more deserving candidate, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who has fought long and hard and suffered for his convictions.
This is by way of saying that when it comes to finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it has often not been the interests of the parties on the ground that have dictated the “process” a favored word that has become a substitute for peace itself. Clearly, the only people who can decide what the future holds for Israel and the Palestinian Authority are the people who live there. And right now, as the U.N.-sponsored marathon summit has wound down with very modest progress towards a cease-fire, it is surely folly to talk of a “peace process.”
Of course, there are far greater problems in the Middle East than the busybody in the White House. The most fundamental problem is that the Oslo accords are built on a premise which clearly is untenable, a physical impossibility; which is to say, two peoples occupying the same space and declaring sovereignty over it as well. Looking at the Palestinian Intifada, Part 2, the words of Norman Podhoretz writing in Commentary magazine in 1996, have kept echoing back to me: “From the very beginning there were those … who beyond being convinced that the goal of this ‘peace process’ was a turnover by Israel of the West Bank and Gaza to the PLO and of the Golan Heights to Syria, were also persuaded that this process would bring not peace but another major war.” Written in 1996 (“The Tragic Predicament of Benjamin Netanyahu”), the essay is hauntingly prophetic.
“Oslo” was first cobbled together in 1993 when the fall of the Soviet Union had deprived the Arab world of its most important international sponsor. Indeed it looked as though accommodation with Washington and with Israel was the only option. Yasser Arafat was negotiating from a position of maximum weakness; indeed he needed Mr. Rabin to help him ward off challenges within the PLO leadership itself.
But did anyone think that the Palestinians would be satisfied with limited self-government? Reality set in during the Camp David Summit when Mr. Arafat walked away from an extraordinary package of concessions put on the table by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. For its part, Israel clearly cannot give Mr. Arafat what he and his people want: a return to Israel’s pre-1967 borders, a state in Gaza and the West Bank and sovereignty over East Jerusalem. And that is just for starters. Israel cannot afford to do so for one primary reason that the PLO and most of the Arab world still consider the ultimate goal to be the elimination of Israel from the map of the Middle East. You only have to listen to Palestinian media, or look at the textbooks used in Palestinian schools to verify this. Palestinians still want their pre-1948 lands returned and will settle for nothing less. Arab countries still consider the existence of a Jewish state an affront to Islam. In this context, the principle of land-for-peace can have no real meaning.
Again Mr. Podhoretz’s article bears rereading. “What looked like moves toward peace by the PLO,” he wrote, was “not a change of heart or mind but a change of strategy. Instead of relying on the old hope of destroying Israel in one fell military swoop, the Palestinians were now putting their faith in the ‘strategy of stages.’ ” In this long-term goal, Palestinians now have the support of countries like Iran and Iraq, sponsors of fundamentalist radicals. Since the early 1990s, these countries have moved to fill the vacuum on Middle East politics that would create a counter force to the United States.
And yet, Mr. Clinton has not given up squaring the circle if that is what it takes. He has reminded Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat that he will still be president after Nov. 7 and that after the election, he will have lots and lots of time to devote to the “peace process.” Could it be that visions of that Nobel Peace Prize are still dancing in his silly head?