Posted on July 10, 2000 in Washington Watch

U.S. President Bill Clinton’s call for a Palestinian-Israeli summit occurs against the backdrop of a Palestinian vote to declare an independent state by year’s end and amidst reports of a proposed Israeli troop buildup in the West Bank and the near collapse of Israeli Prime Minster Barak’s coalition government.

Conversations with all of the principal U.S. actors, the President, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, make it clear that the United States is well aware of the significant risks associated with this summit. But as the President implied in his July 5 press conference, to have done nothing, at this critical moment, would have posed an even greater risk.

Administration officials are quick to point to the obvious this is no text book summit–where the leaders meet merely to formalize that to which they have already agreed. Gaps still remain on all of the major issues dividing the Palestinians and Israelis. In fact, while the White House press announcement termed the session a “summit,” some at the State Department questioned the use of this term and sought to use “event” instead–feeling that “summit” raised expectations too high.

The official line in Washington is that the meetings are necessary and will be difficult. There is no timetable or deadline and no guaranteed outcome.

The President has noted that while the parties have made real progress during the past few months, there is now an impasse. The process, he has stated, “can move forward toward real peace or it can slide back into turmoil. It will not stand still.”

On each of the issues yet to be resolved there now exists, on the conceptual level, creative formulas that can close the gaps. What is missing is the political will to implement those formulas.

In this regard, the burden is squarely on the Israelis to deliver. Their oft repeated “no’s” (on Jerusalem, refugees, water and borders) and their reckless appeasement of extremist aspirations through settlement and road expansion have placed successive governments in a box of their own making. Even the mere leak of “ideas” designed to solve some of the final status issues have caused some of Barak’s coalition partners to resign and have raised fears of organized settler violence in the West Bank.

The Palestinians, who are the weaker party in the negotiations, may, at this point, be well served by their vulnerability. The United States understands that for any peace agreement to work, both sides must be satisfied and made stronger. The President has expressed this in his public comments. In private conversations he has added that for this very reason he does not envision the summit as an exercise in applying pressure on Yasser Arafat. The United States knows that it cannot pressure the Palestinians to accept a bad deal–one that does not meet Palestinian needs–since such a deal will not, in the end, create a lasting peace. The President said as much in his press conference when he described the desired outcome of the negotiations as being “an outcome that is realistic, balanced and fair, and that meets the fundamental objectives of both sides; an outcome that strengthens the two parties rather than weakens one of them; an outcome that accommodates both sides’ vital needs and dreams.”

There is no doubt that Palestinians will insist that their state is a substantial and contiguous land mass that provides direct and unimpeded access to Jordan, Egypt and the rest of the outside world. They will not accept in 2000, what the South Africans rejected in the last century. Similarly Palestinians will insist that Jerusalem, their major urban center–the religious, cultural, social, economic and educational hub of their universe–be restored to them. And, of course, they will require that justice be done to the refugees, who have borne the brunt of this entire conflict during the past half-century.

Israel can also insist on it legitimate rights–but not where they are based on the usurpation of Palestinian rights.

There are, of course, creative ways to resolve these complexities. I have heard the President discuss some of these approaches. He hinted at this in his press conference when he observed “we all know what the deal is. We know what the issues are. We know at least within a range what the options are.”

The rhetoric of the Administration clearly establishes a recognition that both Israelis and Palestinians have political needs and public opinions that must be reconciled to any agreement.

As I have argued before, however, recognition of this fact requires that considerable public diplomacy accompany (and even precede) the negotiations. Palestinians have already given the Israelis what they most wanted from peace “recognition” and acceptance. It is the Israeli side that has failed to give the Palestinians even the most minimal requirements they sought. Pressure from the strong Israeli right wing continues to intimidate the government–evidence the current state of Barak’s coalition. And right wing pressure from anti-peace groups in the United States has also played a significant role in complicating the peace effort.

For there to be peace, there must be strong constituent support for peace (in the United States, as well as among Israeli and Palestinian public opinion). The President, in the past, has made an effort to build such support. His July 5 press conference was described by a White House official as being yet another volley in that continuing effort.

Continuing the push toward shaping critical public opinion in support of the peace effort, Secretary Albright held separate conference calls with both Arab American and American Jewish leaderships, urging them to support the President’s initiative.

It appears that on the Jewish side the efforts of the anti-peace right wing are being actively combated. Last week an extremist pro-Likud groups published a newspaper ad opposed to Barak’s peace efforts endorsed by several Jewish leaders. In response, some mainstream Jewish groups (including the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC) reacted forcefully. It has been reported that AIPAC forced one of its officers, who had signed the anti-peace ad, to resign his position.

Following on the heels of the Albright call there was a meeting White House meeting between Arab Americans and National Security Council officials, including National Security Advisor Sandy Berger. This provided Arab Americans with an opportunity to engage in a substantial discussion of their ideas on the peace process.

Arab Americans are, in their majority, committed to a successful completion of the peace process. They used their discussion with Administration officials, not to raise issues that the Israelis and Palestinians will discuss, but to press the Administration to play a balanced role. They also emphasized the importance of continued engagement with Lebanon and Syria to the achievement of a comprehensive peace. Knowing that for any agreement to be sustained it must be broadly supported, Arab Americans pressed the Administration to actively engage both Lebanon and Syria before, during and after the summit–and to provide confidence –building gestures of support to both governments. The Administration’s response to all these suggestions has been quite positive.

The next few weeks will be dominated by public discussion of the peace process. With so much at stake and with such significant public scrutiny, it is clear that Clinton has taken an enormous risk in convening this summit whose chances of succeeding are so slim.

To meet the goals he set, he will need to present creative new ideas that bridge gaps. He will have to help mobilize public support among both Israeli and Palestinian society. He will also need to build strong U.S. support that will take the agreement out of the arena of petty partisan debates and win enough support to ensure that Congress will guarantee the substantial funding that the agreement will require. And he will have to use whatever success he achieves to then direct his attention to the Syrian and Lebanese tracks so that peace is reinforced and not weakened.

It is a tall order, but one that Clinton has apparently recognized he cannot avoid. This entire exercise is simply too risky and demanding to be about legacy. It is rather about a recognition by Clinton that if he did not work now to give peace one last chance there was the real prospect that the situation in the region could devolve into violence.

We can only, therefore, conclude by wishing the summit participants well.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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