September/October 2000

Clinton in Cairo

By William Saffire

Having presided at Camp David over Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's previously unimaginable concessions -- giving up almost all the West Bank and sharing sovereignty in parts of Jerusalem -- President Clinton goes to Cairo tomorrow. He will plead with Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, to tell Yasir Arafat to grab the deal before an astounded and dismayed Israeli public rises up and tosses out its Great Conceder.

The lame-duck American will promise Egypt to continue billions in U.S. foreign aid to prop up its regime, as we have for a generation. Clinton also promises Arafat tens of billions to finance his future operations in payments fungible enough to arm an ever-growing "police force."

Aware that future Congresses may not want to pick up the tab for history's most expensive Nobel Prize, Clinton will argue that if we ever renege on his departing budget commitments, blame for a new war will fall on the U.S.

Similarly, Barak predicts "tragedy" if his concessions are not accepted by Palestinians. That message is also aimed at Israeli voters: if you do not support my division of Jerusalem and withdrawal from the Jordan Valley, then you will have to fight Palestinian terrorists, with an unsympathetic world saying that you brought it on yourselves.

As a result, Barak, with Clinton's active "facilitating," has emboldened Arabs who are now convinced the Jews will cut a deal at any price. Such inflated expectations drove up the price and made agreement less likely. It is also why the frustrated Barak is now bruiting about coalition with Likud; the prospect of Arik Sharon as deputy prime minister is designed to shock Arafat into signing.

What if Clinton in Cairo convinces Egypt's Mubarak that American largesse will cease if he doesn't lean on Arafat to take this once-in-a-lifetime offer? And what if the Palestinian leader graciously accepts the split-level sovereignty that gives him ownership of the Temple Mount and lets Israel keep the Temple underneath?

At that point, as Barak's concessions lead to a grand photo-op on the White House lawn in time to meet American political and legacy needs, the go-it-alone prime minister would have to submit to Israeli elections.

Right now, his public support is hemorrhaging. Likud's leaders want to replace the government rather than join it. Bibi Netanyahu, though interminably hectored by investigators, leads Barak in polls; Likud leader Arik Sharon is close behind, and Limor Livnat, the Jewish Maggie Thatcher, is in the wings.

Desperate to shore up his former leftist support and to appeal to the Russian immigrants, Barak has now called for a "civic revolution" against the religious parties. Israel could benefit from less religio-political activism, but this is Barak's second time around; after hawking this secular line before his election, the victorious loner surprised supporters by embracing the religious parties as soon as he came to power. Now his sudden reconversion smacks of political panic and many, even on the Israeli left, are disinclined to be triple-crossed.

The good to have come out of this negotiation is to show that for Arab leaders, the issue is less territorial than existential. Abu Dis, the Jerusalem suburb, was not enough; soon East Jerusalem will not be enough; eventually all Jerusalem will not be enough. But the Barak-Clinton concessions cannot be withdrawn until the conceders leave the political scene.

In light of escalating Arab demands, new negotiators need to consider alternative strategies. In five years, Iran and Iraq are likely to have weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. At that time Israel's nuclear deterrent will be matched in the region much as America's was by the Soviet Union. What happens when each adversary has the power to totally destroy the other?

Unless madmen take charge, you do not have nuclear war. Instead, as when the Warsaw Pact faced NATO, conventional defenses help keep the peace. Super-tech anti-missile defenses may also cause future military leaders to turn to tanks and even (gasp!) infantry. If so, the Jordan Valley escarpment, which Barak is so ready to give away, would be vital to Israel's survival.

It's not too late. If Clinton's call on Cairo leads to Arafat's agreement, Israel's last line of defense will be its belatedly aroused electorate.

© New York Times Aug 28, 2000

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