Perspective: A place among the greats

The curious intersection between oslo and the lewinsky affair

As US President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu huddled in Jerusalem in mid-December to wrangle over the future of the Wye agreement, both men were in very precarious positions.

Netanyahu managed a brief reprieve for his shaky coalition when the Knesset postponed until after Clinton's visit pending votes that could have toppled him from power. Clinton too was fighting for his political life as he faced impeachment by the US Congress on charges in the sordid Monica Lewinsky affair.

While Israelis are accustomed to governments falling prematurely (one PM was ousted for flying on Shabbat), the predicament of the US head of state was a rarity indeed. As Clinton landed, he stood at one of the most bizarre crossroads between domestic and foreign policy issues in American history. Many may recall an earlier intersection of these two ongoing sagas, when a tense midnight meeting at the White House between Clinton and Netanyahu this past January broke up even as waiting aides first whispered the breaking news about Lewinsky into the president's ear. By the time Clinton met with Chairman Arafat only hours later, the pressure was off Netanyahu and Clinton was already coping with a scandal that has severely eroded confidence in his presidency.

There is little disagreement that what Clinton did in the Lewinsky affair was wrong, and this is not an attempt to pass judgement on the impeachment/censure issue. But as an American, it is clear to me that US national interests are beginning to suffer at the expense of the president's personal quest to salvage a respectable legacy from his years in the Oval Office. And nowhere is this more obvious than in Clinton's recent forceful efforts to use the Oslo process and the Middle East to score foreign policy successes.

Clinton's personal investment in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is of unmatched measure: this was his fourth trip to Israel while in office, and none can forget the 80-odd hours he spent at Wye River haggling over minuscule details until the wee hours. His involvement and determination may be commendable, but the motivation and the results are increasingly questionable.

First of all, Clinton hastily staged a PNC "annulment" of the Palestinian charter that regrettably must go down in the history books with an asterisk. Not one of the requisite procedures was followed. As some here queried: "What if the impeachment vote were handled with such informality?" The charter vote was a life-and-death issue for a key US ally, not a mere question of some individual's political career. It should have been handled accordingly.

Then, when Netanyahu demanded that Arafat formally renounce his avowed intent unilaterally to declare a Palestinian state next May 4th, Clinton labelled it "okay to advocate how you want this to come out". His scripted answer was echoed by administration officials Dennis Ross and Sandy Berger, who saw no need for Arafat to renounce his "hopes and aspirations". This abrupt shift in policy only encourages Arafat's dangerous flaunting of Oslo and may have unintentionally signed its death certificate.

Clinton also managed to bulldoze history by equating Israelis and Palestinians as "two great people", and abrasively tore at Israeli sentiments when comparing the anguish of Jewish children whose parents were murdered with the sorrow of Palestinian children missing fathers who are in Israeli jails for committing such murders.

Then strangely, the president's impeachment problems once more seemed to overlap with his juggling of Mideast diplomacy. In comments made separately to Israelis and to the PNC gathering in Gaza, Clinton misquoted Scripture (once again) as saying: "We will be judged by the same standard by which we judge; but mercy triumphs over judgement." This refrain seemed oddly out of place and more like some carefully-crafted defensive line culled from his own "journey of repentance".

Clinton concluded his Gaza remarks with: "In this Christmas season, in this Hanukka season, on the edge of Ramadan, this is a time for mercy and vision." Two days later, he was bombing Iraq. And although that action was warranted, the timing--right before Ramadan and the day before the US House of Representatives was set to impeach him--makes his decision highly suspect.

The Middle East is not the place to recklessly gamble for a last-minute spot among the great mortals of our time.


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