Posted on January 22, 2001 in Washington Watch

I say, give the man his due. In recent weeks, Arab disappointment with President Clinton’s last ditch peace making effort has prompted a loud chorus of bitter attacks. In the process, Clinton and his presidency have been demonized, while his successor is now awaited with unrealistically high expectations.

I do not suggest that the Palestinians should have accepted the Clinton proposal. I have read and been impressed by the Palestinians critique of the U.S. offering.

In fact, it is fair to say that both Clinton and his advisors have frequently come up short in understanding the Palestinian experience and appreciating the depth of Palestinian aspirations. I have, on many occasions, personally challenged the President on these points.

The U.S. peace effort has been marred by other shortcomings as well. For example, Clinton was wrong to have maintained his 1992 campaign commitment to refrain from publicly criticizing Israel. And the Administration was wrong to have continued to adhere to the Bush Administration’s “hands off” approach to peace making in the years after Oslo.

While the U.S. peace team was always sensitive to the requirements of Israel’s volatile public opinion, they did not appear to fully appreciate the importance of what was derisively termed “the Arab street.”

All of this meant that too little was done to address critical issues like Israeli impediments to Palestinian economic development, violations of Palestinian human rights, the impact of Israeli land confiscations and settlement construction and Israel’s illegal use of U.S. supplied weapons.

Having said all of this, however, I still insist that Clinton must also be given his due. During the past eight years significant developments did occur, especially in advancing the U.S. political discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And in most instances, these positive developments can be directly attributed to Clinton’s personal efforts.

1) There has been a progressive ratcheting up of the official language used to describe Palestinian national rights. From Carter through Bush, these rights were limited to the “legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people.” Clinton went well beyond that formula, first using the far more descriptive “right to live as a free people on their own land” and then the “right to determine their future on their own land.” In his most recent remarks before a U.S.-based pro-Israel organization Clinton spoke clearly of a Palestinian state and made reference to two capitals in Jerusalem.

The uproar caused by Mrs. Clinton’s 1998 statement about a Palestinian state has now subsided. Despite angry words from U.S. right-wing columnists, a Palestinian state is an accepted fact in U.S. political discourse and President Clinton helped to move forward that discussion.

2) While the Palestinian leadership continues to be viewed as a pariah movement by many in Congress, they have developed a near state to state relationship with the White House. There is now a U.S.-Palestinian bilateral commission which the President has accepted and legitimated.

In the process of advancing this relationship, Clinton resisted bitter attacks from Congress and the pro-Israel lobby that repeatedly pressed the Administration to stop aid and end cooperation with the Palestinian authority.

3) On another, yet related, level, Clinton’s personal efforts to recognize Arab Americans and American Muslims helped both to end their isolation from the political mainstream and to enhance their involvement in policy discussions. Despite fierce resistance from pro-Israel groups, the President welcomed and gave legitimacy to both groups, formally recognizing them as full partners in U.S. political life.

The list of initiatives undertaken by Clinton and his Vice-President to accomplish this goal of inclusion is too long to note. It suffices to say that the impact of their efforts are irreversible and was clearly in evidence in the last election as both parties actively competed in an unprecedented efforts to win Arab American support and votes.


When all is said and done, Clinton is a master politician for whom politics is the “art of accomplishing what is possible” and progress is measured by expanding the reach of what is possible.

When confronted by overwhelming opposition in his efforts to pass his domestic agenda, Clinton sought to co-opt his opponents’ needs to meld them with his own to create a new formula that both sides could embrace. Seeking to accomplish what was possible, he often avoided fatal zero-sum confrontations, seeking to create instead, less than perfect compromises which could later be improved and built upon.

In the process, Clinton was sometimes denounced by liberals in his own party who accused him of “selling-out.” He was attacked even more bitterly by conservatives who were confounded by the President’s success.

Clinton’s record of success speaks for itself. Even his sharpest critics acknowledge that during his presidency “all of the indicators that should be up are up, and all of the indicators that should be down are down.”

It was this same approach that Clinton sought to bring to the Middle East peace effort. Rejecting a zero-sum formula, while attempting to recognize the limits imposed by “real politics,” in Israel and the U.S. Congress he made a determined effort to balance the needs of both Israelis and Palestinians. The results were not always promising. Palestinians correctly noted that more attention was given to the “real politics” requirements of an Israel caught up in a critical election. They also noted that given their lack of trust with Israel’s record of implementing earlier agreements, Clinton’s new formula was too vague in some areas and too limited in others to be the basis of a final agreement. Clinton’s critics in Israel and the United States, on the other hand, have largely attacked the President accusing him of betraying Israel and destroying Jerusalem.

With Clinton now leaving the Presidency, his formula is formally “off the table.” What remains, however, is still an impressive record: taboos have been shattered, concepts have been legitimated and the U.S. political discourse has been dramatically altered. Even Clinton’s strongest Arab critics should recognize this.

Reject what you must, but do not throw out the good with the bad. Clinton’s efforts can be criticized, but should not be demonized. They should be evaluated, recognized and built upon.

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