Posted on September 13, 1999 in Washington Watch

With the signing of the Wye implementation agreement at Sharm el-Sheikh, the Clinton Administration now faces a rather demanding agenda.

There was some speculation, just a few weeks ago, that the United States would significantly downgrade its role in the Middle East peace process. Administration spokespersons dismissed their suggestions, saying only that the United States’ role would change. No longer would the United States expect to serve as compliance referee, but in all other respects, the role would remain as a critical facilitator, and, if needed, as a mediator.

This was somewhat in evidence during the Secretary of State’s recent visit to the Middle East. It will remain in evidence in the next year.

The past three years were painful for the peace process. Palestinians languished under the harsh conditions of an incomplete peace. They became poorer, less employed, with less freedom of movement and with less hope than even before the process began. During this time, in large measure due to the Israeli Prime Minister’s obstructionism, the United States drew closer to the Palestinians, establishing personal ties and an irreversible bilateral relationship with the Palestinian Authority. During President Clinton’s historical visit to Gaza, the United States came as close as possible to expressing support for Palestinian self-determination.

As the United States’ subtle but real pressure on Israel’s Prime Minister came to be felt, Israelis became engaged in substantial debate on the issues of peace.

Barak’s victory, was, in part, the result of the United States having fostered this Israeli debate, just as Rabin’s 1992 victory was helped by subtle pressure from the Bush Administration.

Now, with a new agreement, President Clinton and Secretary Albright face new challenges and responsibilities. If, as President Clinton declared, “a lasting, just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East is now a step closer” and if such a peace is to be completed before the end of his term in office–than the United States has some heavy lifting to do in the next 12 months.

In the same remarks, noted above, Clinton also said, “The Israelis and Palestinians are doing their part…we must do ours.” As a first step the President called on Congress “to fund fully the commitment we made when the Wye Agreements were first signed.”

The $1.2 billion for Israel and $400 million for the Palestinian has not yet been approved by Congress. With the new agreement, the Administration will have to press hard to get quick action from the legislature.

Some members may seek to play partisan politics with the aid package, which Israel claims to need to help with redeployment plans and security requirements, and which the Palestinians need to build infrastructure and create economic opportunities.

The danger from Congress, of course, is not to the Israeli request. Rather it is that some members of Congress will attempt to encumber the Palestinian aid package with stringent conditions. The Administration has indicated that it will oppose such efforts.

This is not the only congressional challenge the Administration will face. There are currently four separate Jerusalem-related bills before the Congress. The most dangerous of these seeks to remove the President’s waiver authority and force an immediate move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. The Administration is committed to defeating these efforts. It has recently received unexpected support for its position from Israeli Prime Minister Barak who, on a number of occasions, (including during his visit to the United States) told Members of Congress “not to get out front of the peace process.”

In addition to its legislative efforts, the Administration has committed itself to strengthening other incentives it has developed to encourage both the Israelis and Palestinians in their peacemaking efforts. For example, both Pentagon and State Department officials will be working with their Israeli counterparts to revitalize a Strategic Policy Planning Committee (SPPG) that will coordinate defense and policy issues between the two countries. This SPPG may prove worrisome to Arab states since it takes the traditional U.S. commitment to Israel’s military superiority and the U.S.-Israeli strategic relationship to an even higher level than before.

The United States will continue to build on its U.S.-Palestinian Bilateral Commission (USPBC) and cooperation in other areas that developed during the past three years. Palestinian Authority President Yaser Arafat will soon arrive in Washington to meet with President Clinton and to convene a session of the USPBC. A new addition to the USPBC is its Business Advisory Group (BAG) that creates a private sector component to the developing relationship–this parallels the U.S.-Egyptian and U.S.-Russian and other U.S. bilateral commissions. The BAG is designed to promote trade and investment and improve the overall business relationship between the United States and the Palestinian Authority.

After six long and troubling years, the United States must begin to seriously address Palestinian economic development concerns. Until the remaining, largely Israeli-imposed, impediments to investment and development are removed, Palestinians will continue to be denied the economic fruits of peace–this will only complicate efforts to move forward the final status agenda.

No doubt, the United States will also redouble its pressure on Arab states to revive multilateral meetings and regional cooperation efforts in order, as they say, “to improve the environment for peace-making.” Efforts in this area may not be so easy this time around–since many Arab states and much of Arab public opinion, have felt burnt by past ventures and seem to prefer a “show me” attitude before embarking on any new grand gestures toward Israel.

Additional areas where the U.S. will be involved are in the final status negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians and in the effort to restart and bring to a conclusion the Israel-Syria and Israel-Lebanon peace talks.

Leaving aside, for a moment the latter two tracks, the final status talks may present the United States with its greatest challenge. However, if not addressed and assisted, these critical talks may collapse, presenting the United States with a sorry end to its entire peacemaking effort.

Up until now, the United States has utilized the well-worn mantra “the parties must make peace together,” to indicate its preference not to become directly involved in the actual negotiating process itself.

When asked what role they intend to play during final status talks, Administration officials, for the most part, indicate that their role will be “supportive”–“to ease bumps in the road,” or “to provide ‘bridging’ ideas to help break impasses, or to provide support to Israelis and Palestinians when they take risks for peace.”

But if the process is to be completed in one year–before the end of the Clinton Administration–then the United States will have to consider playing an even more active and vigorous role.

There are two factors that the United States should consider as it projects its involvement during the next year. The first, of course, is the asymmetry of power that defines the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. This has, in part, shaped the negotiating process since the initial efforts to implement Oslo, six years ago.

Palestinians have complained that, all too often, instead of negotiating, the Israelis have dictated terms leaving the Palestinians no options other than to tinker with details or reject them outright.

Shimon Peres, Israel’s former Prime Minister admitted as much when he confessed “its not as if we are negotiating with the Palestinians, we are negotiating with ourselves. The question is, how much are we willing to give them?’

The only real leverage the Palestinians have had is the power to say “no” and precipiatate a crisis.

At this point, an examination of the maximum Israel appears willing to give in final status agreements and the minimum the Palestinians can accept, makes it clear, that in one year, a crisis, in fact, may be the outcome of these talks.

For example, while Israelis now appear to be accepting the notion of a Palestinian state, their definition of that state is a recipe for disaster. The Palestinians simply cannot accept a tiny, fragmented state with limited sovereignty, with no control over borders, no connection to Jordan or Egypt and no presence in Jerusalem.

What the United States can do to avert a crisis is to help push the debate in Israel toward greater understanding of the legitimacy of Palestinian aspirations and the consequences of a failed peace process.

The same must be true if there is to be progress on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts. While the United States will undoubtedly continue to seek a formula to restart the stalled talks on the Syrian track–what must also be done is to help Israelis break through the psychological barriers that block their vision of an alternative future.

The United States can and should play the role of a moral force that inspires and motivates and that “presents a vision of the future so compelling that Israelis and Arabs are drawn toward it and willing to make sacrifices to get there.”

At the Sharm el-Shiekh signing Secretary Madeleine Albright closed her remarks by noting that, “the United States will do all we can to facilitate and enhance this effort and to help the negotiators succeed. This reflects the interests we have, the commitments we have made and the values we cherish.”

If history is to record that the Clinton Administration made Middle East peace a reality, the Administration will face a substantial agenda in the next year. Its plate is already full with economic, legislative and political tasks to support peace making. But even more must be done if peace is to be achieved.

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