Posted on October 23, 1998 in Washington Watch

The nine-day ordeal at the Wye Plantation produced an agreement that can only be described as Bill Clinton’s triumph. For over one-third of the time that the Israeli and Palestinian delegations were locked away at that bucolic Maryland retreat center the President met, argued, cajoled, brainstormed, listened and lectured.

His attempts to get into the heads and hearts of both sides, to convince them that he understood their concerns and to pose creative new ways to think through their positions was classic Bill Clinton.

The Palestinians and Israelis came away knowing each other better, although not yet fully trusting each other’s commitment to peace. But both sides left Wye trusting Bill Clinton.

The President, who strongly believes in the power of words, sought to create that trust, hoping that his optimism and his confidence would be contagious.

What was important for Clinton was that both leaders, but especially the Israeli Prime Minister, believe that they had a stake in each other’s success. The President believed that only if Netanyahu understood Arafat’s and the Palestinian people’s aspirations and was committed to helping them achieve their goals, would the process ultimately succeed. As Clinton has framed this argument, only if the Palestinian aspirations are met will the Israeli people be secure and only if the Israelis are secure will the Palestinian people be able to achieve their rights. If peace is to succeed, both leaders and peoples must become invested in each other’s needs and both must work to support and strengthen each other.

The deal that was signed by the Israeli Prime Minister and the Palestinian President was, of course, only an interim step–but it was Bill Clinton’s handiwork that produced that step. Now it will be up to the Israelis and Palestinians to implement the deal and make it real.

As the President spoke at the White House, he urged the two peoples to continue to build trust and create confidence and to contribute to each other’s success.

He spoke passionately about Israeli security and how this agreement will enhance that goal. He also spoke equally passionately, more than any previous President, about the Palestinian people’s aspirations. In fact, in the past 10 months, Clinton has dramatically altered the U.S. public discourse about Palestinian rights.

I remember in 1988 when I debated the issue of Palestinian rights before the Democratic Party’s National Convention. At one point I sought to insert the words “Palestinian people” in the Party’s resolution on the Middle East. It was rejected because to say “people”, I was told, was to give the Palestinians recognition as a national community with the right to self-determination.

In 1991 at the Madrid Conference the Israeli government’s spokesperson Benjamin Netanyahu displayed this same attitude at his infamous press conference when he refused to say the words “Palestinian people”. He insisted on referring to Palestinians as the “Arab inhabitants of Judea and Samaria”.

As a result of Clinton’s persistence, the vocabulary of Middle East peace has been permanently changed not only in the United States but among the Likud as well. Clinton repeatedly refers to the “Palestinian people” and has described them as deserving “the right to live as free people”. He has further elaborated their rights as including “independence, economic and political self-sufficiency and the right to breathe free”. In his comments, as well, Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke of the “Palestinian People.” Now some might consider this as small, but I believe that it represents a significant change in language.

The question, of course, that now remains is with the interim agreement signed and the language of discourse changed, what will happen in the weeks and months to come when Israelis and Palestinians begin implementation and move toward final status talks?

What we will first look at are the details of the agreement itself. While the outlines of the deal are well known, its inner workings have not yet been revealed.

Since the agreement is a compromise of the original U.S. plan, which was a compromise of the Hebron agreement, which was itself a compromise of the Taba Accord, which was a compromise of the … etc–the question Palestinians will await to be answered is “have all these compromises foreclosed any final outcomes or are they merely temporary concessions or half-steps that move in the direction of a just solution?” Have Palestinians lost more then they gained and are whatever concessions have been made, temporary or permanent?

Compromises or losses can be acceptable only if they are temporary–especially since Palestinians have given up so much already.

This will become clear both in the details of the accords and in its implementation.

If settlements continue to be built, land confiscated, roads constructed with increasing losses of Palestinian lands and rights than the agreement will not move the process forward and trust and confidence will not emerge.

Similarly Palestinians will look to see if reciprocity is built into the agreement and its implementation. The Palestinian’s agreement to restrain extremists and to refrain from violence and incitement must be matched by changes in Israeli behavior. The settlers must be controlled (and not encouraged, as has been current Israeli government policy), and the language of Israeli officials must also be restrained. If Palestinians can no longer speak of the “land of Palestine”, then Israelis must stop speaking of “Eretz Israel”, “Yesha” and “Judea and Samaria”.

And it will be critical for the Netanyahu government to avoid introducing any provocative caveats–as they did shortly after signing the Hebron Accord when they announced construction of the settlements at Jabal Abu Ghneim.

Prime Minister Netanyahu will no doubt have pressures from his right wing when he returns to Israel, just as President Arafat will face resistance. If Arafat is asked to resist these pressures, Netanyahu must as well. If the Israeli leader seeks to placate hard-liners by new concessions designed to save his anti-peace coalition he will only do danger to the climate of trust and cooperation that President Clinton sought to instill at Wye. And such Israeli concessions to extremists will make it impossible for President Arafat to take measures to restrain Palestinian resistance to the agreement.

At the end of the day the success of President Clinton’s gamble will be measured by the details of the agreements and by the willingness of the leaders to implement them and move forward in good faith to resolve the tough issues in final status talks.

With only six months left before the end of the Oslo process it would serve Arabs well to watch carefully and to evaluate the situation closely. It is premature to celebrate. It is also too early to criticize what we have not yet seen and what has not yet been given a chance to work.

In the days and weeks ahead the Israelis and Palestinians who support peace will look to see if President Clinton’s optimism and creativity have been contagious.

If there are no devils in the details of this agreement, if the agreement in fact moves the parties closer to a just peace and if the implementation is carried out in good faith–then trust may be restored and the entire exercise at Wye will have been worth it.

If the Israeli Prime Minster has not merely signed a deal in order to escape from Wye, but has, in fact, made a commitment to be a real partner with the Palestinians in the search for a mutually beneficial peace–then Bill Clinton’s efforts will have succeeded in ending the deadlock in the peace process.

Now I’m not placing any bets–but in the interests of peace I can at least hope and work for a positive outcome.

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