January/February 2001
Western Wall

Middle East Madness

By Charles Krauthammer

January 12, 2001

A lame-duck American president and a dead-duck Israeli prime minister (opposed by three-quarters of his parliament and running 28 points behind in preelection polls) are racing to try to change the Middle East landscape before they are both consigned to political oblivion. There has not been an exercise of diplomacy this irresponsible -- a breathtaking mix of narcissism and self-delusion -- since Munich 1938.

President Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak are leaving the Middle East closer to a violent explosion than at any point in 30 years. Iraq has moved an armored division westward to be ready to join a general Arab war against Israel. Iran has threatened Israel with an "astonishing and unexpected" response (implying a chemical or biological missile attack) should Israel retaliate against Lebanese guerrillas who have been launching raids into Israel (this after Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon). On Jan. 1, Barak himself advised the Israeli army to begin making preparations for a major war.

Clinton and Barak call this progress, and are now desperate to codify the state of ruin they have brought the region so that their successors cannot escape from it. Except that both Clinton and Barak see not ruin but progress. The new objective, says a State Department official, "is to get a new buoy or anchor" -- some official American statement summarizing the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations -- "that states what we have achieved."

Achieved? These two men have taken a situation that was tense but nonetheless stable and torched it. Last July, in a desperate search for some legacy, Clinton tried to force a peace agreement at Camp David. Clinton was driven by narcissism. Barak was driven by delusion: the belief that if only he could make enough concessions, Yasser Arafat would sign on the dotted line and lie down with lambs.

The problem is that Arafat is no fool. He saw weakness, haste and desperation -- and refused. Barak made astonishing concessions, giving up the Temple Mount, dividing Jerusalem, relinquishing the Jordan Valley, which protects Israel from attack from the east. Arafat not only said no, he never made a counter-offer. Instead, he started a little war to put even greater pressure on Israel.

Barak's response to subsequent bus bombings and shooting into Israeli neighborhoods was to make even more concessions. Clinton, hoping for that Nobel Prize-winning photo-op, traveled from one futile meeting with Arafat to another begging for a cease-fire. Arafat, leader of a tiny, corrupt ministate, repeatedly -- and with impunity -- spurned the pleas of the leader of the supposedly hegemonic power in the Middle East.

The result? Clinton has recklessly devalued the power and prestige of his office. There was a time when the visit -- and the word -- of an American president meant something in the Arab world. Today it means nothing.

But while Clinton damaged only American prestige, Barak has irrevocably damaged Israel's security. And in return for what? Arafat's position is unchanged from where it was seven years ago when the Oslo accords were signed: 100 percent of the West Bank, all of East Jerusalem for his capital and, fatally, the resettlement of 4 million to 5 million Palestinians in Israel, thus in a single stroke demographically destroying the Jewish state.

No matter. The Clinton-Barak folie {grv}a deux grasps at "private statements" Arafat made at Camp David and in a White House meeting. This is madness. For whatever concessions Arafat may have whispered in private, he not only denies them in public, he has gotten the entire Arab League to support his unchanging, unyielding maximalist demands.

Barak's concessions did not change the Palestinian position. But they did change the American position. His legacy is to have single-handedly undermined three decades of American support for bedrock Israeli principles. For three decades, the United States supported a united Jerusalem. The Clinton plan now divides Jerusalem.

For three decades, the United States held that Israel should withdraw to secure, defensible borders. The Clinton plan has Israel giving up its critical Jordan Valley buffer zone.

What is astonishing is that these concessions are entirely unreciprocated, and without any assent from the Palestinians that they would bring peace. Indeed, the Palestinians are adamant that they will not. Thus, the first order of business for the Bush administration should be to declare itself not bound by these desperate eleventh-hour measures and to fire the entire "peace team" -- Dennis Ross, Aaron Miller and Martin Indyk -- that has brought American standing in the Middle East so low.

Clinton has indeed left a legacy: the president who has done more to undermine both American credibility and Israeli security -- albeit with the collusion of a delusional Israeli prime minister -- than any in American history.

For peace, perhaps the price might have been worth it. But look at the region. The blood flows and the cannons are being readied.

© 2001 The Washington Post
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