Posted on November 09, 1992 in Washington Watch

There has been a great deal of analysis and commentary in the Arab press about the impact of a Clinton presidency on the Arab world. Many of the articles I have seen have been fundamentally flawed, based as they were on simplistic distortions or inadequate analysis.

Some of the articles, for example, have projected a “disaster” in U.S.-Arab relations by quoting selectively from Clinton’s campaign speeches or the party platform or by listing some of Clinton’s campaign advisors.

Such analyses are wrong—they originate in a mistaken understanding of both U.S. politics and U.S. policy.

The tone of these articles has been so harsh and one-sided that the London-based Middle East Mirror (a daily review of the major Middle Eastern press) has grouped them together under the heading “Clintonphobia.”

It is clear that the defeat of George Bush represents a personal loss for many Arab leaders, who have known him and worked with him for many years. It is also true that his leadership during the Gulf War and the Middle East peace process (particularly by standing up to the pro-Israel lobby during the first round of debates over the loan guarantees) earned the President great respect in the eyes of many Arabs.

But it also is true that U.S. policy is not based on personality. As I have pointed out in earlier articles in this paper, during the presidential campaign the Middle East policy of both candidates converged A basic agreement emerged, despite some rhetorical differences, on most fundamental aspects of U.S. Middle east policy. This was a result of a number of factors, most notably:

· the end of the Cold war, after which the United States emerged as the sole superpower;
· the victory in the Gulf War during which the United States solidified ties with several Arab states, who have since been referred to by both parties as “U.S. allies” by both parties and their candidates;
· the Palestinian intifada and the remarkable performance of Palestinians in Madrid and thereafter, which has transformed U.S. public and political attitudes toward Palestinians—they are no longer referred to as “terrorists”, but rather as “a people with legitimate rights;”
· the election of Yitzhak Rabin, which (for better or worse) ended the Bush Administration’s antagonistic stance toward Israel and has brought to power an Israeli government at least nominally committed to the peace process;
· and finally the ongoing peace process itself, which both U.S. parties agree represents the best hope for and only framework through which a comprehensive Middle East settlement can be achieved.

As a result of all these factors, the campaign rhetoric of both President Bush and President-elect Bill Clinton reflected a great deal of common ground.

1) Both campaigns expressed strong and continuing support for Israel, with no basic difference in the terms of that support.

Some writers, for example, have taken—out of context—statements by Clinton in which he pledges to continue Israel’s “qualitative military advantage” in the Middle East as evidence of some new direction in U.S. policy. In fact, that policy has been the policy of all U.S. presidents (including George Bush) for the past twenty years.

This type of commitment to Israel is a basic fact of U.S. political life and U.S. political culture. A reading of the Republican Party’s platform, for example, would reveal it to be even more excessive in its praise of Israel and pledges of support for Israel than that found in the Democratic Party platform. This is so for the simple reason that the Republicans, in this election year, felt that they hade to prove their bona fides after the confrontation over the loan guarantees.

2) Both parties have pledged their support for the peace process and the principles underlying that process, specifically U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 and the concept of “land for peace.”

A Clinton Administration will not act in any way to disrupt the peace process. On the contrary, Clinton has pledged to work with the Bush team to maintain the continuity of that process through the transition period.

Middle East peace is no longer a luxury commodity desired by only a few parties. It is now, in fact, a necessity not only for the Arabs and the Israelis, but for the Europeans, Japanese, and many other regional groups as well.

What is possible as a solution will be determined by “real politics”, both among the negotiators and their constituents, and the pressures which develop among interested parties in the world community.

The interrelationship between the United States and the peace process can be illustrated well by comparison with a chess game: it has already started and cannot be stopped or changed, only continued. But knowing chess, the play of the game is set once the opening moves are made, only so many moves are possible. No big changes can be made.

Evidence of the Clinton campaign’s comprehension of this reality came early in the election process. Some hard-liners in the party pushed through language in the Democratic Party’s platform calling “undivided” Jerusalem the capital of Israel. I objected to this in and op-ed in the Washington Post in early July, noting that, “This platform sends the wrong message to Israel, to the Arabs, and to the American people. By failing to distance himself from the hard-line pro-Israel lobby, [Clinton] has aligned himself with Israel’s fading right…”

Two leading figures in the campaign responded in the Post two weeks later with a letter in which they stated the platform recognizes that Israel considers Jerusalem its capital. It makes no statement about moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem…. It simply repeats what has been U.S. policy under every president since the 1967 War…

In fact, the Clinton campaign has pledged to take no action regarding Jerusalem until the completion of the Middle East peace negotiations.

3) Both President Bush and President-elect Clinton have recognized that, after the Gulf War, stability in the Gulf, support for U.S. allies and their security concerns were of the utmost importance to the U.S. economy and Middle East policy.

Clinton has pledged that there will be no let-up to the pressure on Iraq to comply with all U.N. resolutions. Clinton has supported the sale of security assistance to Saudi Arabia, and Clinton advisors have displayed genuine concern for maintaining the strong U.S.-Egyptian and U.S.-Saudi relationships. In fact, it is important to know that Democrats routinely refer to Arab states as “U.S. allies”, which indicates the extent to which the U.S. political culture has been transformed since the Gulf War.

4) There is still strong bi-partisan support for Lebanon’s independence, its territorial integrity and its democracy.

Only on this subject does one see the possibility of differences in approach between the Clinton and Bush. The Clinton group has been more critical of Syria’s attitude toward the Lebanese elections, specifically the failure of the Syrians to redeploy prior to the election as required by the Ta’if Agreement, and the failure to provide for election monitors during the election process itself.

Some Lebanese factions have mistakenly interpreted these statements to mean that a Clinton Administration would side with the anti-Ta’if faction in Lebanon, though the campaign is on record as supporting the accords. In a September 18 statement, the Clinton campaign notes that U.S. policy “should insist on the full implementation of the Ta’if Agreement.”

***

Some Arab commentators have expressed concern about Clinton’s advisors and possible political appointees.

With regard to Middle east issues, there are in fact three major factions within the campaign/transition staff. First of all, there is the Democratic Party foreign policy establishment, many of whom are former Carter White House and State Department officers.

While some Arab writers have pointed with alarm to a large number of Jewish Americans who advise Clinton on foreign policy, such an observation is in large measure meaningless since, for example, most of Secretary of State James Baker’s Middle East team are also Jewish Americans. Many of the Jewish Americans in the Clinton hierarchy who have been, mistakenly, noted with concern, are in the leadership of Americans for Peace Now—an important new grouping of American Jews who are committed to a balanced Middle East peace.

Even among the so-called hard-liners in the Clinton Middle East team there are, apparently, some surprising views. A group of them went, in August, to Israel and met with Yitzhak Rabin. While there they briefed him on their understanding of what policies might be pursued under a Clinton Administration. According to Nahum Barnea writing in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot these Clinton advisors told Rabin

... the strategic alliance between the U.S. and Israel had its origins and sole purpose in the Cold War….the end of the strategic alliance between the U.S. and Israel comes therefore as an inevitable consequence…It doesn’t depend on whether Clinton or Bush is elected, because on this issue they are of the same mind…The future U.S. attitudes toward Israel is also bound to [depend on] the Human Rights in the territories and more suspicious about Israeli nuclear weapons.

Another group that came later to the periphery of the Clinton campaign were the so-called neo-conservatives. Many of these individuals had been Democrats who moved to support Republicans because of the strong ant-Soviet and pro-Israel ideology. A number of neo-conservatives served in the Reagan Administration. Midway through the 1992 campaign some conservative Democrats sought to win this group over to Clinton; and since they were largely frustrated by the end of the Cold War and Bush’s hard line against Yitzhak Shamir, many neo-conservatives abandoned the Republican camp and joined the Clinton effort. No members of this group, however, has cracked the inner circle of Clinton advisors, although they have met with and advised the advisors of the campaign.

Interestingly enough, the pro-Israel lobby, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee [AIPAC] has become closely identified with many of these neo-conservatives and has been actively supporting some of them for an appointment to posts in the coming Clinton Administration. At the same time AIPAC has been waging a war against the Carter group, hoping to put enough pressure on Clinton to make him hesitate before appointing any of the to key policy posts.

But AIPAC is in a weakened state, as a number of recent developments indicates.

1) While many thought that Bush’s rebuke of AIPAC in September of 1991 weakened the lobby, in some ways it actually strengthened it as it allowed it to galvanize major Jewish organizational support—as they responded to this attack on one of their own organizations by a “hostile” president.

A more decisive blow to AIPAC’s prestige came after Rabin’s election when on three separate occasions he publicly rebuked the lobby, in effect telling it to stay out of Israel’s business in dealing with the Administration in Washington. Accusing the lobby of having sided with Shamir and the Likud Party and having unnecessarily antagonized the American government, the Labor Party press in Israel called, in effect, for a “coup” in AIPAC and urging more moderate Jewish American leaders to take the helm of the lobby.

2) Next came a number of revelations regarding AIPAC’s domestic spying operation which had among its principle targets Jesse Jackson, myself, and peace activists in the American Jewish community. This AIPAC effort was designed to maintain files on “enemies” of Israel and to disseminate disinformation about them in order to weaken their influence and discredit their work. The revelations are continuing, and each one is another knock on AIPAC’s credibility.

3) Just this week AIPAC received a new blow as its President was forced to reign after the release of a taped telephone conversation which revealed his exaggerated boasting about AIPAC’s fundraising techniques to support senate candidates (some in apparent violation of U.S. election law), his supposed manipulation of Secretary of State Baker and AIPAC’s influence within the Clinton campaign. The AIPAC President’s forced resignation and apology to both Secretary Baker and President-elect Clinton for his “exaggerated claims”—many Clinton supporters are outraged over the entire episode.

***

The first real indication of the direction of the new Clinton Administration will come as key appointments are made in the coming weeks.

President-elect Clinton, according to those who know him, keeps his own counsel and will not give in to pressure. It appears that he seeks consensus and does not like to be forced to prematurely show his hand by any side. This became clear this week as he made his first appointments to his all-important transition team.

While former Clinton campaign chair Micky Kantor sought to preempt the operation by starting it early and, in effect, taking control of it, Clinton instead appointed two long-time trusted friends: Vernon Jordan (former head of the prestigious African American organization the National Urban League) and Warren Christopher (former Deputy Secretary of State under Jimmy Carter) to head the committee. Jordan will chair the group and Christopher will be its director.

While those who had sought a balanced approach to transition appointments have been heartened by these early decisions, they might also be disappointed to learn of some reports that Christopher has apparently taken himself out of the running for Secretary of State. According to the reports he cited his age as a key reason.

***

In the end the Americans who voted for Bill Clinton voted for change and hope—specifically the hope that government would be an agent for positive change

· to improve the U.S. economy,
· to rebuild the nation’s industrial base and infrastructure,
· to solve the nation’s staggering health care crisis, and
· to improve race and community relations.

Clinton’s margin of victory was not large enough to declare a mandate for his policies, but with expected support from the Democratic Congress he may be able to act quickly and decisively to implement many of his domestic programs. This will, of course, be his first priority. But President-elect Clinton has also made it clear that he will not abandon U.S. responsibilities in the world.

In an important post-election address, Clinton assured the world community of his commitment to work with the out-going Bush Administration to maintain continuity in several key areas—and the Middle east was the first one he mentioned.

I do not mean to suggest in all this that the Arab world should not be concerned about the direction of a new U.S. Administration. Indeed, with so much at stake, with the peace process and the prospect of regional instability hanging in the balance, an unknown future should be approached with appropriate caution and understanding. It is important to note that the statements I have seen from Arab government officials and the leader editorials in some of the major Arab press have struck exactly the right tone—while many of the so-called analysts have not.

What is required is sound analysis based on a comprehensive reading of the available facts and new strategic planning—not simplistic rhetoric that implies and induces panic.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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