NEW YORK, Jan. 8 (JTA) – With only days left before he leaves office, President Clinton went public with an outline for a Middle East peace agreement that he believes will continue to guide future administrations.
His remarks Sunday night to the Israel Policy Forum contradicted earlier hints that Clinton’s peace proposals would leave office with him on Jan. 20.
Sensitive to Israeli concerns that any concessions now would only serve as a jumping-off point for future negotiations, Clinton reportedly had told Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, in a fateful session at the White House on Dec. 23, that his offer would expire with his term.
According to a pre-released version of his speech, Clinton was to reiterate this point at the Forum’s annual gala at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.
However, in a deviation from his prepared remarks, Clinton made no mention of a deadline.
In fact, he implied just the opposite, noting that “the fundamental, painful but necessary choices” needed to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “will almost certainly remain the same.”
If Israelis and Palestinians “can come up with a different agreement, that would suit me just fine,” Clinton told the liberal Jewish group that was founded at the same time that the Oslo peace process got off the ground. “But I doubt it.”
Even as he was sending envoy Dennis Ross to the Middle East this week on one last peace effort, Clinton sought to lower expectations of what could be accomplished in his last two weeks in office.
He did not speak of reaching a final peace accord, but pledged only to use “my remaining time to narrow the differences between the parties to the greatest degree possible.”
The parameters of his peace proposal “don’t answer every question, they just narrow the questions that have to be answered,” Clinton said.
Clinton’s remarks – in which he criticized the Palestinian Authority for fostering a “culture of violence” and Israel for expanding West Bank settlements – were warmly received by the audience.
Afterward, he spent nearly an hour shaking hands with admirers, including some who called him the best friend the Jewish people had ever had, and others who pinched his cheek and kissed him like a grandson.
Foremost among Clinton’s proposals was a clear public call for a Palestinian state and the division of Jerusalem along ethnic lines, making the city the capital of both Israel and Palestine.
Excising Arab areas of the city from Israeli control would “give rise to a Jewish Jerusalem larger and more vibrant than any in history,” internationally recognized as Israel’s capital, Clinton said.
With the Jews’ ancestral homeland claimed also by another people, “there is no choice but to create two states and make the best of it,” Clinton said.
Then, he said, “the motives of those who continue the violence will be clearer to all than they are today.”
Beyond a call for “mutual respect” for all religions, Clinton’s speech on Sunday was noticeably vague on arrangements for Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
Under his plan, the Palestinian state would be established in all of the Gaza Strip and nearly all of the West Bank, with an exchange of territory to compensate for settlement blocs annexed by Israel.
Clinton also said Palestinian refugees should have an unlimited right of return to the new Palestinian state, but not to Israel.
Like other countries that might choose to accept refugees, Israel should be able to decide which and how many refugees to accept, he said.
“You cannot expect Israel to make a decision that would threaten the very foundations of Israel and undermine the whole logic of peace,” Clinton said.
America, however, would “take the lead” in raising money to resettle and compensate Palestinian refugees, he pledged.
While Israeli security concerns were important in any peace deal, Clinton said, they should not come at the expense of Palestinian sovereignty or territorial contiguity.
Security clauses could include a phased Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, an international presence in the Jordan Valley to monitor any threat to Israel from the East and Palestinian agreement to suffice with a “nonmilitarized” state, Clinton said.
In addition, Clinton accepted the Israeli demand that any deal declare an end to the historic conflict, something the Palestinian side has resisted.
He also called on other Arab states to display a more generous attitude to Israel once its conflict with the Palestinians, the ostensible source of Arab grievance against the Jewish state, is over.
With Prime Minister Ehud Barak facing an uphill battle for re-election Feb. 6 – his coalition collapsed over his concessions at the Camp David summit last summer – Clinton went out of his way to praise the Israeli leader, saying he “has demonstrated as much bravery in the office of prime minister as he ever did on the field of battle.”
Pointedly absent was any similar praise of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
In fact, Clinton said official Palestinian incitement was “inconsistent with the Palestinian leadership’s commitment to nonviolence at Oslo” and “sends the wrong message to the Israeli people.”
Despite the leading role taken by Arafat’s Fatah movement in the last three months of violence against Israel – and increasing evidence that Palestinian security officials are involved in terror attacks against Israel – Clinton still sought to differentiate between the Palestinian establishment and “independent actors” that are “enemies of peace.”
Palestinians, Clinton said, are “in the grip of forces,” which he did not specify, “that have not permitted them to reconcile with Israel.”
After the speech, Sandy Berger, the U.S. national security adviser, told JTA that Arafat’s future actions will show whether he is for or against peace.
He refused to say what conclusions could be drawn from Arafat’s behavior during the last three months of violent conflict with Israel.
Israel initially responded to the public announcement of Clinton’s plan by reiterating its acceptance of the proposals.
However, in a satellite address to the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington on Monday, Barak disputed some of the specifics outlined by Clinton.
Asked about Clinton’s comments about a Palestinian state, Barak said Clinton’s call “reflected the American position, and not the Israeli one,” but did not elaborate.
He reiterated that he would not give away sovereignty over the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site.
Barak also focused on the possibility of unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians, an option if a peace agreement is not reached.
He said over a two-year period, Israel would determine which settlements to annex, would declare a security zone along the Jordan River and reduce its dependence on Palestinian workers.
The Palestinians, who last week said they accepted the proposals – albeit with serious reservations – roundly denounced them Monday, calling them an Israeli plan in American dressing.
Most galling to the Palestinian leadership is the idea that they scale back their demand that some 4 million to 5 million descendants of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war be allowed to return to their former homes inside Israel.
“The Palestinians are eager to make peace yesterday, if not today,” Hassan Abdel Rahman, the chief Palestinian representative in the United States, told JTA at the New York event. “But we have our requirements.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told JTA she remained optimistic about the future of the peace process, and would work to “achieve as much as we can” in the little time remaining to the administration.
Clinton “has literally cleared some time in his calendar to deal with this and he’ll do what he can as long as the parties are willing,” White House spokesman Jake Siewert said.
Both Israel and the Palestinians have said “they want the president to remain engaged, and we take that at face value. We’re not looking at this retrospectively, but at what we can do in the next few days.”
The administration also is briefing members of President-elect George W. Bush’s incoming team, but not getting input from them, Siewert said.
According to a poll conducted for the IPF, 84 percent of Americans support Clinton’s Middle East peace efforts, and 80 percent want Bush to continue them.
The poll of 500 registered voters was conducted in early January, and has a margin of error of 4.5 percent.