- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2001

After eight years of micromanaging Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, President Clinton leaves office with the issue more contentious than it was when the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles was established.
The most serious flaws in President Clinton's foreign policy strategy in the Middle East and the Balkans stem from his failure to distinguish between the political culture of the belligerents and their aspirations. Indifferent to the political cultures of both the fratricidal ethnics of disintegrating Yugoslavia and the Palestinians, the president operated from a Western liberal and rational political culture in approaching conflicts that go back into earlier centuries with feudal and backward premises. The conflicting forces in these areas are primordial in their orientations and motivations. Fanatic ethnics in both areas would not be reconciled by even the most powerful state in contemporary politics. President Clinton thought he could deal with Yasser Arafat the way he deals with members of the House or Senate, like Franklin D. Roosevelt who thought he could deal with the Soviet Georgian Josef Stalin they way he could deal with a senator from the state of Georgia.
The president spent his political capital and valuable time with the likes of the former dictator of Syria, Hafez Assad, and the benevolent dictator of Palestine. Although neither Syria nor Palestine is central to American foreign policy, Mr. Clinton met three times with Assad, and Mr. Arafat holds the record as most frequent guest at the White House. Assad humiliated the president and Mr. Arafat continuously deceived him. It is sad, indeed, that the president of the United States has to micromanage the negotiations of a petty dictator of a corrupt state and an Israeli government that is torn asunder between its head and its declining authority. The net result of Mr. Clinton's endless efforts hardly supports the time and prestige he has invested. Mr. Clinton has acted as Mr. Arafat's champion and factotum and did not put the obstructionist Mr. Arafat in his place.
The failure of the recent peace efforts lie at the feet of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak who beseeched President Clinton to behave reasonably with Mr. Arafat. Unfortunately for Mr. Clinton and Mr. Barak, they are Western liberals who are either ignorant or indifferent to the nature of Middle Eastern political culture. In the Middle East the bazaar is the model for politics. Remember the Iran-Contra shenanigans. Spinning, soft talk and compromise are not the language of bazaar diplomacy. Bloodshed, assassination and deceit are acceptable tools of the bazaar negotiating culture. Might is still right in the Middle East and the Balkans. The sword replaces the law.
For the edification of this president and his successors, culturally and fundamentally both moderate and radical Arab states are still opposed to the Zionist enterprise in Palestine and Israel. Politically, an independent Jewish entity in the midst of the Arab world is an anathema. When Mr. Arafat speaks of settlers, he has in mind the very nature of the Jewish enterprise over the last century the legitimate home of the Jews in Palestine and Israel. When he speaks of refugees, he really means Palestinian citizens of a complete Palestine "stolen" by the Zionists. When he speaks of Jerusalem, he means total Islamic domination of the holy sites and a Palestinian capital in the midst of a Jewish state.
Mr. Arafat's objection to post-1967 settlements and his insistence on the right of return are a subterfuge to de-Zionize Israel. Since 1993, rather than preparing his people for cooperation, accommodation and concessions with Israel, Mr. Arafat has advocated violence since the first week of Oslo. A week after signing the agreement at the White House, Mr. Arafat spoke in Johannesburg, calling for a jihad against Israel. He has demonstrated no intention of coming to terms with the Jewish state, employing Islamic tactics to gain territory.
In view of this strident and prohibitive cultural behavior, what should the Bush administration do? So far we hear a muted anxiety. The new administration needs to radically change the approach and strategy for Middle East negotiations. It must prioritize its goals. Negotiations must begin between Syria and Israel. Syria is an independent state and has no irredentist aspirations against Israel. It only wants the Golan territory back, which is negotiable and holds the promise of an early Bush success. Mr. Arafat bases his negotiating on enlarging territory that does not belong to him in an effort to build a state in exchange for peace. There is no such precedent in modern international relations. The closest would be the case of Kosovo, where the Albanian Kosovars are trying to use NATO as an instrument to help them establish a larger Albania. The Bush administration should not succumb to the bazaar or to micromanaging a conflict that is not central to American interests. It should not take Mr. Arafat to its bosom, a man who has more American blood on his hands than any present Middle Eastern leader other than Saddam Hussein.
Establishing a Palestine state on the basis of Mr. Arafat's pipe dreams is tantamount to the destabilization of Israel and Jordan. The Bush administration should consult intimately with the Jordanians concerning the strategic future of the Jordan Valley. According to Mr. Clinton's plan, the Jordan Valley should be internationalized 36 months after consummation of a peace treaty. No responsible Jordanian political or military leader will allow a ragtag Palestinian army on the Western side of the Jordan River. It would be a prescription for instability. Jordan has shown its preference for the Israeli Defense Forces, which means stability.
Jordan and Israel are true allies of the United States. The Palestinians are not. This will be understood by the conservative realists in the new administration.

Amos Perlmutter is a professor of political science and sociology at American University and editor of the Journal of Strategic Studies.


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