Ever since Yasser Arafat's attack against Israel began two months ago, Clinton has not wavered from strict evenhandedness toward, to use the favorite American phrase, the "cycle of violence." This is the preferred phrase to describe the result of Arafat's aggression, because it drips with moral neutrality.
The American attempt not to cast judgment between the Palestinian attacks against Israel and Israel's attempts at self-defense have at times reached almost obscene proportions. On November 23, when a Palestinian car bomb killed two Israelis in Hadera, and Israeli snipers killed four Fatah Tanzim militiamen, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright managed to compare both incidents in the same breath.
Though Albright managed to "condemn the act of terror" in Hadera, she felt compelled to immediately add, "Israelis were not the only victims today, though. This morning in Gaza a number of Palestinians were killed by the IDF in circumstances that remain unclear. There is a cycle of violence that must be broken." Clinton has personally attended two summits, in Paris and at Sharm e-Sheikh, in efforts to cajole Arafat into ending the gunfire. What he has not done is the only thing that has a hope of putting an end to Arafat's armed intifada: demanding that the Palestinians end their aggression against Israel and return to the negotiating table.
As long as the United States exhibits a Pavlovian need to balance criticism of Palestinians with complaints toward Israel - even when the government is under massive public pressure to end its policy of restraint - there is no diplomatic reason for Arafat to do what he can to end the Palestinian attacks. As long as he is not labeled the aggressor, both the Palestinian and the Israeli dead work to Arafat's grisly advantage.
Instead of calling a spade a spade, we have this gem of even-speak from White House spokesman Jake Siewert on Saturday: "The secretary said it last week as well, that both Israelis and Palestinians need to accept that fact, that there is no place for violence, for incitement, for economic pressure in any genuine search for Israeli-Palestinian peace. And we are pledged to continue to do everything we can to assist the parties in these objectives. É So we will continue to talk to both sides and be helpful wherever we can." This sort of babble is maddeningly counterproductive, and amazing coming from a White House that might be expected to be in a hurry to reach an agreement. At the same time, Prime Minister Ehud Barak also seems to be in a hurry, yet he, too, is acting in a baffling way for someone seeking an historic agreement.
Last week, for example, he laid out the kind of new interim agreement he is willing to consider, in which Israel would recognize a Palestinian state and hand over another 10 percent of the West Bank to make that state more contiguous. In exchange, the Palestinians would agree to Israel retaining control of settlement blocs, while the issues of refugees and Jerusalem would be put off for some time.
As might be expected, this notion was rejected by the Palestinians the moment it was put in the public domain, because every proposal made public must be rejected by the Palestinians, at least for negotiating purposes. Because of such rejections, once a proposal is public, it automatically becomes an opening position for Israel.
Barak is aware of this dynamic, and so must have assumed that his proposal would be rejected outright, or that his proposal would be a starting point rather than an objective. In any case, it is not clear how this proposal squares with Barak's long opposition to "salami tactics" and buying time with land.
If Barak is serious about switching goals from a comprehensive agreement, or about giving up further territorial assets for something less than peace, the people of Israel need to know both more and less than they know now.
Opposition leader Ariel Sharon has also talked amorphously about "long term" partial agreements. Whether or not Labor and the Likud sit in the same government, now is not the time to pursue slightly differing strategies in order to accentuate political differences. Any future trial balloons in the diplomatic arena should be joint ones, if they are to have either legitimacy or a chance of flying.