A Failed Peace Process

We are looking at the ashes of hope. Nothing enduring has come of President Clinton's midnight schemes for a Mideast settlement. And nothing should–for they presume that Yasser Arafat is a partner for peace and that his word on still another agreement can be relied upon. Six times–from Oslo to Cairo, through Wye to Camp David–Arafat has promised to renounce terrorism. Six times he has met Israel's olive branches with gunfire, rocks, and firebombs, not to mention the release of dozens of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists. Arafat has misled and incited the mass of Palestinian people. He has betrayed the peace. No person in business, personal, or public life would rely on a piece of paper whose signatory has demonstrated a record of such mendacity.

It is a horrendous history, and a well-meaning American administration has been complicit in the disaster. The conclusion must be that the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis cannot be solved, only managed. But it cannot even be managed effectively without a clear sense of what has been going on in the seven years since Oslo. The accord lighted up the world with a great illusion–that Arafat was ready in his heart to lead the Palestinian people to a territorial compromise with Israel that would result in peaceful coexistence. The years since then have been grim. Arafat exploited every mistake by Binyamin Netanyahu. The Palestinian leader's true intentions were exposed, finally, by Camp David. There Arafat was confronted with an Israeli leader so dedicated to peace that he offered a package whose generosity appalled even Leah Rabin, the widow of the military hero who was Ehud Barak's mentor. The Barak offer was breathtaking. It included Israel's nearly total withdrawal from the territories, the removal and destruction of dozens of Israeli settlements, even the redivision of Jerusalem.

And what was Prime Minister Barak's reward? To be branded a Nazi in the Arab world, and to return home to an orchestrated crescendo of violence. It was not spontaneous. As the Palestinian minister of communications, Imad Al Falouji, made explicit, the rioting was designed and planned beforehand by Arafat. Why? To excite the Arab world and invite the sympathy of a credulous West. No weapon was withheld. The Palestinians incorporated Hamas and the Islamic Jihad into their new "Supreme Coordinating Committee of the Islamic and National Forces." On the testimony of the Palestinian Authority's police chief, Ghazi Jabali (who had earlier been involved in organizing a terrorist attack), "not even one" of the terrorists who killed Americans or Israelis was still in a PA prison. Where were they? Out on the streets facilitating some 100 bombings of Israelis. Arafat's own militias led over 2,500 clashes with Israelis. His goal? To compel the most dovish government in Israel's history to offer up still more concessions.

But that only begins to limn the outlines of Arafat's outrageousness. Most horrible is the Palestinian practice of exploiting children as human shields for gunmen stationed at the rear of a mob. Why? Because children provide news pictures worth a million words, and journalists refuse to pass them up. You don't have to be Israeli to be enraged or ask why the child was placed in harm's way. Their exploitation is so outrageous that a Palestinian women's group, the Tulkarm Women's Union, wrote to Arafat. "Our children are being sent into the streets to face heavily armed Israeli soldiers," reads the letter. "The Palestinian Authority must put an end to this phenomenon. We urge you to issue instructions to your police force to stop sending innocent children to their death."

Sacrificing children. How ironic that this takes place in that part of the world where the biblical image of the sacrifice of Isaac is still remembered as the ultimate test of faith. The tragedy is that the story of Isaac remains but not the moral at its end–God's interdiction: Never sacrifice a child. As Golda Meir once put it, "We will have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us." That moment has not arrived.

So the road from Oslo has been tragic for Israel: No place is secure–not buses, not marketplaces, not holy sites, not roads–nothing. Israel has exchanged land . . . for what? For riots and the threats of worse to come? For antisemitism and hatred? What other country with such overwhelming might would restrain itself to the degree Israel has? Alas, its major ally, Washington, has pressured Israel to endure, to feed still more of the meat of concession to the tiger on the absurd assumption that this would transform the tiger into a vegetarian.

The Clinton administration invested too much in the man of whom we asked too little. It refused to condemn Arafat for cynically starting this war or for his failure publicly to renounce the violence, or for violating his obligations under Oslo. Perversely, the Clinton administration has taken the opposite tack with Israel: It failed to meet its promises to enhance Israel's military edge and to make good on long-term military commitments; instead it supported a fact-finding mission to determine if Israel used excessive force. It failed to veto a one-sided United Nations Security Council resolution against Israel, but it consistently permitted Arafat to cover for his violations. It has become a broker, employing a rhetoric of false moral equivalence. It has pressured Israel to give more and more land in exchange for failed Palestinian promises. To date, this has been a fool's bargain. Yet the Clinton administration offered Arafat sovereignty over the Temple Mount, the holiest of Jewish holy places. This was the stumbling block at Camp David. But once the offer was made, Arafat raised the stakes yet again, rejecting the most critical terms of Clinton's proposal. Even sovereignty over the Al-Aqsa compound, atop Jerusalem's Temple Mount, was not enough. The Palestinians wanted the area beneath the summit, alongside Judaism's sacred Western Wall, where, they assert, Jews must not be permitted even to blow the shofar on the high holy days. Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem were not enough: Arafat wanted contiguity.

Concessions without end. There are never, it seems, enough concessions. Arafat insisted on a right of return to Israel by 3.2 million Palestinian refugees. That's tantamount to the destruction of the Jewish state and undermines the central tenet of Oslo–that there would be two states for two peoples.

So there will be no 11th-hour deal. And good thing, too. Washington's proposals, even if accepted by Barak's government, were opposed by over 60 percent of Israelis, so they ran an extraordinary risk of rejection. The consequences of that would have been appalling. Arab governments would have had an excuse to break relations with Israel; the Palestinians and their terrorist minions could have justified launching terrorist attacks against Israel.

Put plainly, the conditions for peace simply do not now exist. And that will be so as long as most Palestinians dream of Israel's destruction; as long as they view Israelis as foreign interlopers; as long as they teach their children that Zionism is a passing imperialist event. The notion that peace agreements will bring peace rather than photo opportunities, in other words, is nothing but delusion.

What must be done then? First, recognize the reality that Arafat has not been a true partner for peace. Help the world understand that. Meanwhile, pause in this madcap flight to revive a failed peace process. The parties must, instead, be encouraged to take steps to minimize their opportunities for conflict, if necessary through taking steps to increase the divide between the Jewish and Arab areas, including, where possible, in Jerusalem. Recognize a Palestinian state, but leave the question of final borders until later, when the conditions for peace, on sustainable terms, might exist. Cease American mediation while there is violence.

Difficult tasks all–tasks now made more difficult by the failed Clinton policies. By refusing to demand that the Palestinian Authority live up to its written agreements, Washington has convinced Arafat that he can undertake any commitment without the obligation of having to deliver, without fear of the consequences of such failure. By raising Palestinian expectations beyond what the Israeli public may be willing to provide, Washington has also hardened positions on both sides. By rewarding Palestinian violence with new concessions, the United States has ensured that violence will be resorted to again and again by Palestinians if they decide they don't like any provision of any agreement they may sign.

Fortunately, President Clinton has acknowledged that his proposals should not survive his presidency. Instead, let us pursue American interests. These lie in preventing radical Muslim forces from flourishing politically on the basis of anti-Americanism or confrontations with the West. This will require the belief by these radicals that the United States will stand resolutely with its allies–and the United States has been identified for decades with Israel. The weaker Israel looks, and the more pliable America looks in response to violence, the more radical Arab Muslims will press to fulfill their ambitions to reject Western influence in the region. This can only encourage the likes of Saddam Hussein and the Iranians, while giving countries like France the sense that they can rush in and expand their role in the Middle East at our expense.

The Clinton administration's desperate desire for a Mideast settlement, framed by its eagerness for a legacy, threatens to erode America's standing in the region, while doing great harm to an unshakable American ally. This, sadly, may well be the real Clinton legacy on the hard ground of the Middle East.

Mortimer B. Zuckerman - editor-in-chief

©2001 U.S. News and World Report

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