Posted on January 17, 2000 in Washington Watch
During the past decade, the end of the Cold War, the Palestinian Intifada, the Gulf War and the Middle East peace process have all combined to change both the context of the Middle East policy debate and the way most serious candidates for political office address Middle East issues.
There are, of course, still those who are not serious. For example, at a recent Republican Presidential debate in Michigan, a reporter asked candidate Gary Bauer, “As president, where would peace in the Middle East rank in your list of priorities? Do you support a Palestinian state? And what would you do to insure the safety and security of both Arabs and Jews?”
“Well, a Middle Eastern settlement is extremely important from the standpoint of the United States and from the standpoint of the world. But I’ll tell you what I will not do and that is do what this administration has done for the last seven years and that is brow beat the State of Israel, our most reliable friend and ally, to give up more land for security.
“We all know what the map look like: this little sliver of a democratic nation in the middle of the Middle East surrounded by hostile powers, much larger than them. And it’s the little sliver of a democracy that’s being told it’s got to trade land for peace.
“I believe Israel has been our only reliable ally. I would stand with them. I would make sure that their security was safe and that the relationship between the two of us prospered. And I would begin to put some pressure on those other countries in the Middle East that rely on us to be their defense, their safety net. That if they want to be our ally, then they need to be friends with Israel, our major ally in the region.”
That answer, and the fact that Bauer was not challenged by any other candidate on the stage, made it clear that it is still possible to pander and promote an anti-peace agenda and get away with it despite the changes that have taken place in the Middle East, the changes in U.S. perceptions of the region, and the peace policies pursued by the past three administrations.
In part, this is due to a growing partisan split, resulting from the role that the religious right and old Cold War neo-conservatives are playing in shaping Republican attitudes on Middle East issues. This split can be seen in the treatment given by the candidates to a number of critical Middle East issues.
Israel has long claimed Jerusalem as its capital. Official U.S. policy, dictated by both national interests and international law, does not recognize this claim and has, therefore, refused to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, both Republican and Democratic party platforms continue to call for such a move or at least call for recognizing Israel’s claim to the city. Some political observers have become quite cynical about the fact that, in the past, the very candidates who have proposed moving the Embassy, once elected, adopt the long-standing U.S. policy of refusing to make such a move.
One noteworthy example of this was Ronald Reagan who, by any measure, was a strong supporter of Israel, and had repeatedly promised to recognize the Jewish State’s claim to Jerusalem. When, in 1984, Congress attempted to force Reagan’s hand with legislation on Jerusalem, the President threatened to veto. He won.
With the advent of the Middle East peace process, a new obstacle was placed in the way of an Embassy move. Israel and the PLO agreed in their Oslo Accords to defer any action on Jerusalem until the final status talks of their negotiations. They also agreed that neither party would take any unilateral steps that might predetermine the outcome of these final status questions, including Jerusalem.
It was, therefore, quite disturbing that the Republican-led Congress in 1995 forced the hand of the Clinton Administration by passing (with a veto-proof margin) legislation requiring U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and mandating a move of the U.S. Embassy by 1999.
Since the Clinton Administration has secured a national security waiver provision in the legislation the President has used the waiver to delay implementation of this move.
Reflecting the partisan split on this and other Middle East issues, the leading proponent and sponsor of the 1995 embassy bill was Senator Robert Dole. Dole attempted to use this issue, without success, against Clinton during their 1996 presidential campaign.
In the 2000 contest, the partisan rift continues. In recent remarks, made mostly before conservative Jewish groups (although John McCain, characteristically, addressed the same remarks to an Arab American audience) every Republican candidate has promised to make the embassy move a priority for his administration. One, without thinking of the implications, responded to a trick question by promising to move Israel’s U.S. Embassy to East Jerusalem!
George W. Bush, apparently repudiating his father’s position, that held that Jerusalem was occupied territory that was subject to negotiations, has offered some contradictory views on the subject. On two occasions when asked if he would move the embassy, he seemed to indicate that he would not since it “might screw up the peace process.” Shortly thereafter an official campaign spokesperson “clarified” Bush’s remarks saying that what he “really meant” was that he “intends to set the process in motion [of moving the embassy] as soon as he becomes President.” On another occasion, Bush himself stated that he would move the embassy to Jerusalem and that he recognized Jerusalem as the “undivided and eternal capital of Israel.”
The other Republican contenders have said the same.
On the Democratic side, on the other hand, the two candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley, while having established strong pro-Israel records during their Senate careers, have taken more cautious stands in this election.
In a policy statement Bradley notes: “As a practical matter, each country designates its own capital. For this reason, I believe the United States should move its embassy to Israel to Jerusalem. The move should, however, be timed so as not to disrupt peace negotiations.”
Gore, as Vice President, has been careful to support the Administration’s position in the peace process. A spokesman summarized Gore’s position as the following: “He believes that the status of Jerusalem is among the issues the two parities will resolve in direct negotiations and that it would not be helpful to the peace process for the U.S. Administration to prejudge the final status issues.” Moreover, while speaking to pro-Israel audiences, Gore has not mentioned, Jerusalem or the claim that it is the eternal and undivided capital” of Israel. Most recently, Gore was asked during a December 1999 visit to Brooklyn’s Orthodox community about the embassy and the question of Jerusalem. He replied that Israel itself had asked the U.S. not to take actions that would damage America’s role as a peace facilitator and the future status of Jerusalem must be resolved only by the negotiating parties, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
On the Role of Pressure
Another area where Republicans have taken issue with the policy of the Democratic Administration is a mirror reflection of the 1992 criticism Democrats, then led by Bill Clinton, offered of the Bush Administration. At that time, it was Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker who led the Middle East peace effort and had used pressure to help Israel decide to move the process forward. Many believe that the appearance of U.S. displeasure with the Yitzak Shamir-led Likud government helped the Labor government of Yitzhak Rabin win in 1992. The ability of a government to maintain strong and friendly ties with the United States is a key issue in internal Israeli politics.
In 1992, Clinton, who actually agreed on most matters of Middle East policy with the Bush Administration, made the Republicans’ use of “pressure” on Israel an issue in the campaign.
As President, Clinton pledged that he would not publicly pressure Israel to make decisions in the peace process. However, the President’s subtle but quite real use of pressure against the Netanyahu government was successful in getting the Israelis to agree to negotiate and come to an agreement with the Palestinians. When the Netanyahu government would not honor that agreement, the U.S. Administration’s clear signs of displeasure, like the actions of Bush and Baker in 1992, helped Israelis see the need to change governments in 1999.
It is, therefore, somewhat ironic that this year Republicans are challenging the Democratic President for being too tough on Israel.
In a subtle dig, for example, George W. Bush stated that, “a lasting peace will not happen if our government tries to make Israel conform to our vision of national security.” McCain offers his own criticism when he notes that “I will never ask Israel…to sacrifice tangible land in exchange for intangible promises. And I will never ask them to finalize any peace accord until all the provisions of Oslo and subsequent agreements have been met. For too long, the nation of Israel has bargained in good faith, but received little in return.”
Steve Forbes is even more direct (and, in some ways, bizarre) in his criticism of the Administration. After meeting with Netanyahu, Forbes praised him for standing up to “outside forces” (presumably the U.S. government) demanding Israeli concessions to gain a peace agreement with the Palestinians. “That means Israel cannot make one-sided concessions because that just feeds the intransigence of the other side.” During a televised debate, Forbes went on to say “One of the dangers that Israel faces today is with a president who wants to leave a legacy and is going to push Israel to make concessions they shouldn’t make. And as president, I’m not going to twist Israeli arms to get a false peace.”
If there is one area where a near consensus exists amongst the candidates of both parties, it is in the general approach they would take toward Iraq.
The Clinton Administration inherited the Iraq dilemma from the Bush Administration. The contours of this problem are defined by a number of factors:
Â· a defiant regime in Baghdad;
Â· an unstable situation within Iraq with a no-fly zone protecting a restive Kurdish population in the North and another no-fly zone operation in the South which is dominated by an equally restive and often oppressed Shi’a population;
Â· an unstable region with a politically uncertain situation to the east in Iran, a still vulnerable Kuwait to the south and Turkey, which has repressed its own restive Kurdish population in the northwest;
Â· a critical situation for U.S. allies in the Gulf who worry about the instability and volatility created by the continuing standoff and the dangers that may result from any dramatic change that may occur in either Iraq or Iran; and
Â· a devastating sanctions policy that is blamed for severe hardships and deaths of over one million Iraqis and has inflamed anti-U.S. sentiment in Iraq and in the broader region.
With the Iraqi regime rejecting continuation of the international arms inspection program and maintaining its defiant posture with regard to fulfillment of other UN-imposed obligations, hard-liners in Congress passed and the Clinton Administration endorsed an act requiring the United States to support the overthrow of the government in Baghdad. The Iraqi opposition in exile, the beneficiary of the Iraq Liberation Act, is, by all accounts, incapable of overthrowing the regime. And U.S. allies in the Middle East worry about continued U.S. support for such an ineffective effort. Nevertheless, because of pressure emanating from neo-conservative Republican hard-liners, from pro-Israel activists and others, there is very little incentive for candidates from either party to deviate from existing policy–except, possibly, to push in a more hard-line direction.
Where there are differences, they are in emphasis.
Vice President Gore articulates the Administration’s position and attempts to cast it in a positive light. He attempts to give focus to the humanitarian dimension of the conflict as the U.S. concern with the Iraqi people. “Regime change,” as the current U.S. policy has come to be termed, is supported by Gore as is continuation of the sanctions policy. For example, Vice President Gore repeatedly emphasizes that the U.S. conflict with Iraq does not involve the Iraqi people. Gore maintains that the U.S. has always supported the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people and is “willing to look at ways to improve the effectiveness of the humanitarian programs in Iraq, including lifting current ceilings which can be used to purchase food and medicine.” Gore adds that he even “looked forward to the day when we have peace between the United States and Iraq.” On the other hand, Gore is a firm believer in the current policy of U.S. sanctions as a way to bring about change in the Iraqi regime. Gore told a different group that the U.S. is “determined to continue sanctions against Baghdad until it meets its commitments to the international community.”
Bradley, the other Democrat, has not yet articulated a fully developed Iraq policy. He has, on a few occasions, been forced to explain his opposition to the 1991 resolution to empower the Bush Administration to use force to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. In his only statement on Iraq policy, Bradley notes, “Saddam Hussein continues to be a threat to his own people and to his neighbors. In 1990, he invaded an Arab country, Kuwait, and he continues to try to develop the capability to intimidate his Arab neighbors in defiance of the entire international community. Until the threat ends, the international community must continue its sanctions, while working harder to ensure that the proceeds from the sale of oil permitted under the United Nations resolutions go to help the people of Iraq, not continue to prop up Saddam and finance his weapons programs.”
The Republican candidates have taken a characteristically tougher approach while basically agreeing with existing policy.
Bush has indicated that he intends to take a hard-line approach in dealing with Iraq. According to Bush, he would not ease sanctions, he would not negotiate with Saddam Hussein but would help opposition groups to overthrow him and he would make sure that the Iraqi leader lived up to agreements he signed in the early 1990s.
McCain has advocated a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. national security with a “rogue state rollback” policy to deal with countries such as Iraq and North Korea. McCain supports the Iraq Liberation Act and providing the Iraqi opposition with the means to overthrow Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. He does not believe UN sanctions should be lifted on Iraq.
Forbes advocates tough measures to “end Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror with a comprehensive strategy to remove Saddam from power.” In February 1998, Forbes outlined a plan to overthrow Saddam. It included lifting sanctions and bans on the sale of oil in areas freed from Saddam’s control and U.S. military assistance in the region to help protect a new Iraqi government.
What emerges here is that with regard to the most perplexing and stubborn issue facing U.S. policy, the candidates are in basic agreement. They present no new ideas, but largely seek a continuation of the complex and, at times, contradictory policy of sanctions and containment and “regime change” that has yielded little result in the past 10 years.
What emerges from an examination of the views of the candidates is that there is a partisan split on some fundamental issues facing U.S. policy in the Middle East.
What is clear is that these issues and the positions of the candidates on critical Middle East policy questions, should be the subject of greater public debate and press scrutiny.
With the peace process at a critical stage, with the security of important U.S. allies and interests at risk in the Gulf, with the expectations that the U.S. will continue to have a significant involvement in the region–critical issues of Middle East policy cannot be ignored.
There is today growing alienation from the U.S. developing in many sections of Arab public opinion. The persistence of a perceived U.S. double standard in its policy toward the region should be a matter of concern for those who seek to lead the U.S. during the next four years.
Worn-out cliches, pandering and dangerous and provocative posturing will not do. Substantive debate is needed.
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