News Analysis: Despite His Persistent Efforts, Middle East Prize Eluded Clinton

Eight years after walking into the White House, President Clinton leaves with significant accomplishments in the Middle East.

Clinton and his team of negotiators and advisers were unable to put the final nail in the coffin of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But few would label his actions in the Middle East a failure.

There are tangible changes in the region, and hope remains – despite the latest flare-up of violence – that the two sides will continue the progress they have made since the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference.

But it may be years before we can truly assess the Clinton era’s impact on the Middle East peace process.

“I would like to think that when historians look back on this period, they will say this 10-year period created a foundation on which a resolution of the Arab- Israeli conflict could be based,” said Aaron Miller, who was deputy special Middle East coordinator in the Clinton State Department.

It’s still unclear what role Miller will play in the Bush administration. Maps of the Middle East rest on the floor of his State Department office as he awaits his next assignment. Those maps, the blueprints to the Clinton team’s work over the last eight years, await a new owner.

Miller and the U.S. Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, were the point men on the Clinton team who forged many of the relationships and hammered out many of the agreements in the region. Ross, who is leaving the State Department, said he believes the parameters for peace that Clinton set forth before leaving office will form the framework of an eventual agreement.

“He took on the greatest taboos and helped to demystify them,” Ross told JTA last week in New York after addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “I’m not sure that anyone else could have done it.”

Middle East analysts credit Clinton for his ability to appeal to both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, gaining their respect and trust.

“No matter how it turns out, he will be considered the person who defied the laws of political gravity,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs and former editor of the Jerusalem Post. “He did it by working this issue personally, devoting an enormous amount of time and not just being content to do photo-ops and signing ceremonies.”

Makovsky calls Clinton both the most pro-Israel president ever – and the most pro-Palestinian. He developed a father-son relationship with the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and was the first American president to enter the Gaza Strip.

Clinton devoted more hours to meetings with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat than with any other international leader, Makovsky said.

But it was more than just time.

Clinton used the same attributes in the international arena that won him praise domestically – an ability to reach out and touch people, empathize with their problems and show a genuine interest in aiding them.

“There is a quality in negotiations that I would describe as empathy, which is critically important for a mediator,” Miller said. “It’s the capacity and ability to listen and to understand each side’s perspective without necessarily sympathizing or agreeing to the point where you eliminate your ability as a mediator. That capacity was his real strength.”

Despite his negotiating qualities, part of Clinton’s success stemmed simply from the fact that he appeared at the right point on the Middle East timeline.

“He was handed a remarkable gift when the Israelis and the PLO secretly signed the Oslo agreement, brought it to the White House and asked him to bless it,” said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.

As a legal adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Joel Singer was one of the negotiators of the Oslo accords. He said Clinton used the opportunities to his advantage.

“Even though the circular history began to be ripe for negotiations between Israel and its neighbors during his presidency, Clinton was quick to grasp the opportunity and was always ready to jump into the cold water,” Singer said.

But Clinton’s personal attributes sometimes have backfired on him.

He has been widely criticized for bringing Arafat and Barak to Camp David last summer to try to seal a deal before the Oslo interim agreement’s deadlines passed. Clinton believed his powers of persuasion would be enough to push the two sides toward an agreement, Makovsky said.

Ultimately, the time proved unripe. Arafat walked away from a deal, Barak’s willingness for compromise cost him his majority in the Knesset, and the standoff eventually erupted in the violent Palestinian uprising of the past four months.

Miller, who was part of the Camp David negotiating team, said bringing the sides together was an attempt to prevent the situation from spinning out of control.

“Had we not gone to Camp David, and had we ended up with violent confrontation in September, the same critics who now accuse us of not understanding the nature of the difficulty would have said to us, ‘Why didn’t you try?’ ” Miller said.

“In the end, policy very often becomes the choice between very imperfect alternatives,” he said.

Clinton’s actions in the Middle East were far from perfect.

Even supporters like Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and current president of Tel Aviv University, said the peace negotiations erred in focusing solely on the actions of the leadership, rather than on selling the peace proposals to the people.

Speaking to JTA by telephone, Rabinovich also said the Clinton admistration was mistaken not to punish one side or the other for flouting the agreements or leaving the bargaining table.

“Each side has to take into account that in the end, peace is not just the purview of the elites,” Miller said. “It has to be the property of the public.”

Clinton also has been accused of trying to move too fast in peace negotiations, and forcing the parties to adapt to his timetable.

That charge was made indirectly by President George W. Bush during the presidential debates, and was illustrated in the last few months of Clinton’s administration, as he rushed to bring the parties together before his term ended.

“The role President Clinton played in trying to have his own proposals – although with a great deal of input from the Israelis and Palestinians – might have put more pressure on the whole process,” said Ronald Lauder, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “The future role of the American president should be as a facilitator, not as an originator.”

Despite Clinton’s years of work, his departure from office is overshadowed by several months of violence, the worst to hit the region since the Oslo accords. Analysts said the latest violence is not unexpected, given that the leaders are now focusing on permanent solutions to the real issues.

As Bush assumes the White House, the end of the Clinton saga may not be imminent. The door is open for him to continue to play a role in negotiations. If an agreement is reached in the near future, Clinton’s efforts will be heralded, Telhami said.

“If the Israelis and Palestinians manage to get an agreement between them, even on George W. Bush’s clock, it will be because of the ground Clinton made,” Telhami said. “History will look back and say, ‘This was an amazing period.’”

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