Posted on December 09, 1996 in Washington Watch

The President’s announcement of the national security team that will guide his second term in office is certain to rekindle discussion in the Middle East as to precisely what a second Clinton term will mean for the region.

Undoubtedly this renewed wave of speculation will focus on the personalities of the new team, while ignoring the fact that this team is virtually identical to the group that served the President during his first four years.

The most important factors that will ultimately shape U.S. policy in the second term are the personality of the President (and not the personalities of his cabinet), domestic and international political realities, and U.S. national interests. In fact, many of the Arab and Israeli analysts who speculated about the direction of Clinton’s second term in the weeks immediately following his reelection seemed to understand this, although their analysis were oftentimes overly deterministic and simplistic.

There were also, of course, some naively optimistic notions about how a reelected President is freed from political pressures and can therefore make dramatic changes in policy. But that of course is just fantasy, since the President lives in a world where he must continue to face a Congress and powerful interest groups who will exercise significant influence in shaping and limiting future policy options.

But this observation should not lead one back to the simplistic conclusion shared by the majority of Arab and Israeli analysts that politics and interests will combine to produce no change in a Clinton second term.

I say this because the personality of the President is an important determinant in shaping policy and the two factors of political reality and national interests are themselves not static constants unaffected by external events.

The end of the Cold War and the completion of the Gulf War, for example, resulted in a realization by the U.S. that the promotion of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East was essential to secure U.S. national interests in the broader region. The architects of Madrid stipulated that continued political division resulting from the Arab-Israeli conflict was unacceptable and would only lead to instability which would continue to complicate U.S. – relations in the Middle East. To achieve this necessary comprehensive peace it was determined that two essential criteria must be met: guaranteeing Israeli security and implementing the legitimate rights of the Palestinians.

This expanded definition of U.S. interests has been accepted by President Clinton. In a number of policy statements since assuming office, the President has emphasized both U.S. interest in the completion of the peace process and the necessity that the process be comprehensive and balanced.

At a White House news conference earlier this year the President noted,

“Our challenge is to now broaden the circle of peace, recognizing the principles that underlie the peace process, territory for peace, realization of the legitimate right of the Palestinian people, security for all parties, and full real peace”

And so while it is true that national interests will play a role in shaping the Middle East policy of the second term, those “national interests” will not be defined as narrowly as they are by some Israeli analysts (i.e. to include only Israeli interests) nor will they be defined as negatively or crassly as is the penchant of some Arab analysts (i.e. to promote Israeli hegemony or maintain Arab division). In fact, there is a growing appreciation in the U.S. today that a collapse of the peace process will fuel extremists tendencies throughout the Middle East which will have a long-term destabilizing effect on U.S. interests and U.S. allies in the region. This is a broader definition of U.S. security interests than existed previously and is a driving force behind the U.S. commitment to the achievement of a comprehensive Middle East peace.

Domestic political factors that will shape Clinton’s second term have also undergone some changes as a result of the peace process. For example, there is today an on-going debate within the Jewish community over the policies being pursued by the Netanyahu government. Most American Jews and some major Jewish organizations were exhilarated by the peace process and became heavily invested in its success. While there is a strong tradition of Jewish organizations not publicly criticizing Israeli government positions to which they are opposed, that has changed somewhat in recent years. Ironically, it was the supporters of Likud who established the precedent of public criticism with their denunciation of Rabin and Peres.

If Netanyahu is perceived as unwilling to move peace forward or should a crisis develop that is perceived to be the result of Israeli provocation or intransigence his government may not receive the support of all sectors of the U.S. Jewish community.

Throughout its first term, the Clinton Administration sought to provide support for the peace process mainly by providing Israel with incentives to encourage risk taking. Arabs were urged to demonstrate confidence-building gestures to show Israelis the benefits that peace would bring.

So extensive was the U.S. effort to win Israeli public support for peace (especially following the waves of violence that took scores of Israeli lives), that many Arab critics began to see the peace process as essentially an Israeli-centered effort.

Despite being showered by U.S. incentives and Arab confidence building gestures, Labor was inhibited from moving peace forward due to its fear of Likud’s extremist religious and nationalist supporters. During that period, the U.S. goal was to strengthen Labor and convince the majority of Israelis to support the peace agreements.

Notwithstanding these U.S. efforts, including politically induced silence in the face of Israel’s massive assault on Lebanon, the Labor government that made peace lost its bid for reelection and was replaced by a Likud leadership that has not yet made a strategic decision to accept and implement the principles of a comprehensive peace.

With Likud in office, U.S. policy has already undergone a subtle but significant transformation. While still resisting to the use of public negative pressure to force changes in Israeli policy, the Administration has repeatedly stated its insistence that the new Israeli government honor agreements it has signed with the Palestinians. And in response to the violence that erupted in the wake of Israel’s opening of the tunnel in Jerusalem, even a casual Israeli observer could have noted the difference in the U.S. reaction to Netanyahu in contrast to that which was accorded to his Labor predecessor.

The current U.S. approach to the peace process seems to be focused on producing modifications in the existing order: within Israel, in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, and in the daily lives of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

The Administration appears to believe that once signing an agreement with the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), the Likud will have taken an irreversible step toward engagement in the peace process. Arab critics fearful of Likud’s intentions dispute this notion and the Palestinian leadership still refuses for reasons of principle and politics, to sign a Hebron agreement which they hold to be deficient. Palestinians do not want to see a Hebron agreement detached from Israeli commitment to full compliance with the rest of the peace accords—and in this regard they appear to have some U.S. support.

What the Administration seems to be focused on is the effect they believe a Hebron agreement will produce within the Likud coalition, since some of the coalition’s more extremist members have indicated that they might resign should a Hebron deal be signed. This U.S. effort thus appears to be directed at creating the precedent of the first signed Likud-PNA agreement that it hopes will produce both a psychological change within the coalition and possibly a change in the coalition itself.

Additionally, the Administration is engaged on a number of levels in working to improve the economic life of the West Bank and Gaza, specifically by pressing Israel to remove impediments it has established that stunt Palestinian economic development.

It is important to note that one of the major proponents of this policy is Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstadt. Mr. Eizenstadt was an official in the Carter White House and a leader in the U.S. Jewish community. A speech he recently delivered calling on Israel to remove obstacles to Palestinian commerce has generated some serious debate within Israel and the U.S. Jewish community.

All of these changes already begun during the Clinton first term can be expected to continue (and some would hope be intensified and pursued more aggressively) during the second term.

Having noted that there will be this continuity from the first to the second term does not diminish one important role that the second term will play in shaping Bill Clinton’s foreign policy. This will be his last term in public office, a fact that weighs heavily on the President.

It is clear even from his first term that this President is personally heavily interested in the search for Middle East peace. He has grown considerably in his understanding and appreciation of the issues facing the people of the region and he has developed a personal rapport with both Arab and Israeli leadership. He is aware of the consequences for U.S. national security interests should the process fail and he is equally mindful of his leadership role and the legacy he is creating.

By having noted that the changing definition of U.S. national interests, the debate within the U.S. Jewish community and the personal role of the President will all contribute to shaping U.S. policy in the second Clinton term, the Arab world will certainly not be mere passive observers during the next four years.

The firm resolve of the Arab summit to commit the Arab consensus to peace while at the same time insisting that peace with Israel be based on the principles of reciprocity and the firm position of the Palestinian leadership to insist that the Israeli government fully implement the peace accords will play an important role in shaping U.S. policy in the next period. This Arab pressure will provide needed balance to the peace equation.

For our part, Arab Americans will continue to engage both the Administration and the Jewish community in our efforts to advance the peace process. We will continue to work with the Administration to explore solutions to problems that impede realization of Palestinian rights and we will provide ideas we feel will help move the process forward. In part, we will press that there be no further delay in bringing economic benefits of peace to the West Bank and Gaza. For three years the situation of Palestinians has deteriorated and their condition today should become a policy priority. At the same time we will continue to push the Administration to bring new energy and activism to the peace process to restate the vision of a comprehensive peace and to lay out an aggressive program for its implementation. In fact, this active involvement of Arab Americans in U.S. politics is itself one of the hopeful changes that has developed in recent years and has already, in albeit a limited manner, produced some change in the U.S. policy debate.

It is incorrect, therefore, to view a Clinton second term with either passive optimism or fatalistic cynicism. Changing definitions of U.S. national security interests and changing political realities both on the U.S. and the Middle East have created both imperatives and opportunities for those who support a comprehensive Middle East peace. Work must be done by those who seek to avoid the catastrophe that would result from a collapse of the peace process. This is a view shared by the President. Despite current difficulties, he remains committed for reasons of both national security and history to the successful completion of an Arab-Israeli peace.

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