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For Clinton, Special Regrets About Failure in the Middle East

June 23, 2004
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When Bill Clinton calls himself a failed president, it’s not because of the scandals, the legislative battles or even his personal life — it’s because of the peace in the Middle East that he never achieved, despite long hours spent cajoling Israeli and Arab negotiators. Writing in “My Life,” his memoir that hit bookstores Tuesday, Clinton places the blame squarely on Yasser Arafat.

During Clinton’s final days in office, the Palestinian Authority president “thanked me for all my efforts and told me what a great man I was,” Clinton writes. ” ‘Mr. Chairman,’ I replied, ‘I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me one.’ “

Readers who buy Clinton’s autobiography looking for details of his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky, as touted in the book’s pre-publicity, also will get detailed insight into Clinton’s search for peace between Israel and its neighbors.

Clinton’s account of his presidency is chronologi! cal rather than thematic; all in all, about 68 pages scattered through the 957-page book are devoted to the Middle East peace process.

The outlines are not new, but there are sharp details about his days spent at several retreats working with negotiators and about whom he believed to be compliant and who played hardball.

Clinton largely faults Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for the breakdown of peace talks between Israel and Syria. Though Barak was the driving force behind the summit with Syria in Shepherdstown, W. Va., in January 2000, he didn’t have the will to make concessions, Clinton writes.

Barak wanted to draw out the negotiations so he would appear to be a tough negotiator, Clinton writes. But as a relatively new politician, Barak didn’t understand that peace with Syria would reap greater political rewards with Israeli voters than if he hung tough, he says.

“Barak had not been in politics long, and I though he had gotten some very bad advice,” Cl! inton writes. “If Barak had made real peace with Syria, it would lift his standing in Israel and across the world, and increase the chances of success with the Palestinians. If he failed, a few days of good poll numbers would vanish in the wind. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t change Barak’s mind.”

But Clinton saves his harshest criticism for Arafat. As Clinton’s second term was expiring in the fall of 2000, he recalls questioning Arafat about his desire to make peace following the failed Camp David summit and the outbreak of the intifada.

Clinton was considering investing his energy pressing North Korea to end its missile production programs, but only if Arafat indicated that even a final push wouldn’t bring peace with Israel.

“He pleaded with me to stay,” Clinton says of Arafat, “saying that we had to finish the peace and that if we didn’t do it before I left office, it would be at least five years before we’d be this close to peace again.”

Yet before long Arafat’s maneuvering got in the way: After agreement had been reached tha! t the Muslim and Christian quarters of Jerusalem’s Old City would come under Palestinian sovereignty and the Jewish and Armenian quarters under Israeli rule, Arafat demanded a few blocks of the Armenian Quarter.

“I couldn’t believe he was talking to me about this,” Clinton writes.

Clinton suggests that Arafat may not have been at his full mental capacity in the final months of negotiations, saying he seemed “confused, not wholly in command of the facts.”

Then again, he writes, Arafat may simply have been unable to “make the final jump from revolutionary to statesman.”

The book abounds in revealing anecdotes. For example, Clinton was in awe of Barak’s toughness when the Israeli prime minister returned to negotiating immediately after nearly choking to death on a peanut during the Camp David summit.

Clinton describes the day that Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin came to Washington to sign the Oslo accords in September 1993. Clinton forbade Ara! fat to wear a revolver on his hip, and had to convince Rabin to shake hands with Arafat.

One account shows how high political drama can at times merge with farce. Clinton and his national security staff coordinated a way to ensure that Arafat would not try to kiss Rabin, something Rabin insisted he wouldn’t allow.

“National Security Adviser Tony Lake described the procedure and we practiced it. I played Arafat and he played me, showing me what to do,” Clinton writes. “When I shook his hand and moved in for the kiss, he put his left hand on my right arm where it was bent at the elbow and squeezed; it stopped me cold. Then we reversed roles and I did it to him.

“We practiced it a couple of more times until I felt sure Rabin’s cheek would remain untouched,” he writes. “We all laughed about it, but I knew avoiding the kiss was deadly serious for Rabin.”

Clinton speaks at length of his affinity for Rabin, and writes glowingly of the late Israeli leader’s work and personality. Clinton describes the night of Rabin’s assassination in N! ovember 1995: After learning Rabin had been shot, Clinton hit golf balls on the White House lawn while awaiting news of his condition.

The book includes a photo of Clinton, head in hands, hearing the news of Rabin’s death from Lake.

“By the time he was killed, I had come to love him as I had rarely loved another man,” Clinton writes. “In the back of my mind, I suppose I always knew he had put his life at risk, but I couldn’t imagine him gone, and I didn’t know what I would or could do in the Middle East without him.”

Clinton — who received 80 percent of the Jewish vote in 1992 and 78 percent four years later — praises the American Jewish community for its role in support of his peace efforts.

“The American-Jewish community had been very good to me,” he writes, explaining his decision to unveil the details of his peace plan at an Israel Policy Forum dinner in early 2001, when he had barely two weeks left in office. “Regardless of what happened, I thought I ! owed it to them to explain my proposal.”

Under Clinton’s plan, a Pa lestinian state would have been 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 proposed that Palestinian refugees have an unlimited right to move to the new Palestinian state, but not to Israel.

Clinton reflects angrily on Arafat’s statement, nearly a year after Clinton left office, that he finally accepted the parameters of Clinton’s plan.

“Apparently, Arafat had thought the time to decide, five minutes to midnight, had finally come,” Clinton writes. “His watch had been broken a long time.”

Some of Clinton’s explanations about whom he did and didn’t pardon in his last days in office also will have interest for Jewish readers. Clinton explains his decision not to pardon Jonathan Pollard, the former U.S. Navy intelligence officer convicted of spying for Israel.

During negotiations toward the 1998 Wye accord, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Neta! nyahu demanded Pollard’s release as a condition for moving forward in the peace process. But Clinton says CIA Director George Tenet said he would resign if Clinton commuted Pollard’s sentence.

“For all the sympathy Pollard generated in Israel, he was a hard case to push in America; he had sold our country’s secrets for money, not conviction, and for years had not shown any remorse,” Clinton writes.

Clinton says he decided in his final days as president to pardon Marc Rich, a contributor to several Israeli and American Jewish causes, because tax evasion charges against him were now seen as civil offenses — and because Rich had paid more than four times the amount in fines that he had evaded in taxes. Clinton says that Barak, for his part, asked him three times to pardon Rich.

The Rich pardon proved among Clinton’s most controversial.

Clinton says he didn’t pardon Michael Milken, the former junk-bond king who is a major contributor to Jewish day schools, becaus! e of objections from the Treasury Department and the Securities and Ex change Commission.

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