Risky Business


President Clinton makes new friends, loses old ones during momentous visit to Israel

I have achieved what I came here to achieve."

With these words US President Bill Clinton summed up his three-day Middle East visit, which ended on December 15.

Spoken as it was in the context of the ending of a summit in which he failed to persuade Israel to cede more disputed territory to the Palestinians on schedule, the assessment may seem overly generous.

But then Clinton's main reason for the trip was to oversee a Palestinian National Council meeting's "vote" to dump the anti-Israel articles in its charter--which he did. Anything beyond that would be a bonus for a president keen to score high foreign policy points days before facing the biggest crisis of his political life.

What Clinton did achieve was to win the hearts and minds of Palestinians, while losing those of many in Israel. The massive goodwill he generated on previous visits--following the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and again after a spate of terror attacks in the spring of 1996--may have dissipated.

Even before Air Force One touched down at Ben Gurion Airport, Clinton had the suspicions and misgivings of a large chunk of the country to contend with. These have become increasingly wary over recent years about what they see as a shift in US policy in favour of the Palestinians. But by the end of the trip, the group of Israeli detractors had arguably grown, swollen by many who were deeply offended by his performance in Gaza.

First, the agenda of the trip itself lent weight to the view that this was an official two-state visit by the world's most powerful head of state. Although Clinton slept in Jerusalem, the remainder of the visit was almost exactly divided between time spent in Israel-proper and time spent in the PA-ruled areas. The red-carpet treatment and "welcome to Palestine" banners did the rest.

Then the president told Palestinians that they were free to "determine their own destiny on their own land", words read by many as supporting a future independent Palestine.

But where Clinton really risked losing Israeli friends was during his speech to a meeting of Palestinian officials in Gaza on Monday. He told the gathering he had been moved by two groups of children over the previous 24 hours--Israeli children of victims of terrorism, and Palestinian children whose fathers were in Israeli prisons.

"If you put them in a line together I could not tell whose father was dead and whose in prison, or the story of their lives making up the grief they bore. No side has a monopoly on pain, or virtue," Clinton said. "Palestinians and Israelis and their past both share a history of oppression and dispossession. Both have felt their hearts turned to stone for living too long in fear, and seeing loved ones die too young. You are two great people of strong talent and soaring ambition, sharing such a small piece of sacred land. The time has come to sanctify your holy ground, with genuine forgiveness and reconciliation."

The sentiments may have seemed appropriate to Clinton and his speechwriters. But, in the words of Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, they caused "very deep shock in Israel". There is, commentators noted on Israeli television programmes, a sizeable gap between Israel claiming "a monopoly on pain, or virtue" and Israel accepting equal responsibility for the bloodshed of the past half-century in this part of the world. And there is a huge gap between the plight faced by a family whose breadwinner was murdered by terrorists, and one whose breadwinner is in jail for perpetrating such crimes.

Netanyahu said shortly after the speech he rejected the symmetry: "We didn't send murderers to kill, everyone knows that. I hope that he [Clinton] too, understands that."

The prime minister then phoned Madeleine Albright to raise the issue, and the Secretary of State sought to contain the damage: "He was drawing a parallel of the children being in pain," she said. "In no way did he draw any parallel about the cause of the pain. The president has made it very clear there is no room for terror."

Referee dismisses 'foul' appeal

The next morning, Israeli insistence that the Palestinians honour specified Wye commitments before it agreed to carry out a troop withdrawal due three days later, effectively scuttled the three-way summit Clinton hoped would have capped the trip's achievements.

The Palestinians quickly accused Netanyahu of wrecking the attempt to move the Wye process forward. "They came [to the summit] with the absolute intention of destroying it as a chance for again saving the peace process and making the Wye agreement implementable," lamented PA negotiator Nabil Sha'ath.

The sentiments may well have been echoed privately among grim-faced US officials, who may even have seen Netanyahu's stance at the summit as Israeli payback for the American-Palestinian love-feast in Gaza.

But the more observant would have picked up signals far earlier of significant differences between Netanyahu and Clinton over Palestinian compliance. At a press conference with Clinton on the first day of the visit, Netanyahu stressed that the Palestinians had not met "a series of obligations in the sphere of security and ending incitement and violence …

"Mr President, I am sure that we can achieve peace between Palestinians and Israelis if we stand firm on Palestinian compliance," Netanyahu continued.

Yet when Clinton spoke minutes later, he effectively rejected the Israeli invitation to side against the Palestinians on this issue: "The Palestinian Authority has taken some important steps with its commitments -- a deepening security cooperation with Israel, acting against terrorism, issuing decrees for the confiscation of illegal weapons and dealing with incitement …"

Even allowing that the PA "certainly could be doing better to pre-empt violent demonstrations in the street", Clinton had made it clear he disagreed with Israel's position on Palestinian compliance.

America's role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts was doomed to become messy. Promoted at the Wye Plantation to the position of referee, the US was sooner or later going to clash with its Mideast ally over compliance.

Because Clinton has invested so much in the process--and because his presidential legacy is at stake--the temptation to overlook Palestinian violations has been considerable. Critics believe he has given in to that temptation.

The impression that relations between the Clinton and Netanyahu administrations have grown considerably cooler in recent days was strengthened by the arrival, even before Clinton flew home, of the president's controversial spinmeister and campaign strategist. James Carville is in Israel to help Labour's Ehud Barak defeat Netanyahu in the next election.

Unhappy traveller

Clinton will clearly not relish the memories of this visit. Besides the PNC meeting, he has little to show from a trip that took him away from Washington--against advice, according to some reports--at a time he could have been using better to shore up his support base in Congress.

If he was hoping to get away from the Lewinsky affair, the newsmen following him around were not prepared to play ball. If anything the trip was marked by the lack of access to the president, but on the rare occasions reporters were able to get a question in, they seized the opportunity to come back repeatedly to the impeachment crisis. Some of the time, Clinton seemed disengaged, distant even. Several times during a dinner hosted by Netanyahu, the guest of honour's attention seemed to wander, leading to some embarrassing moments, as when everyone but the president picked up their wineglasses for a toast offered by the host.

Tight security kept the common people, Israelis and Palestinians alike, far from the visitor. As a result it was difficult to gauge public reaction to Clinton. Banners slung up around the Gaza Strip and in Bethlehem were obviously official, rather than a spontaneous show of support by the Palestinian people, kept away from routes travelled by the American cavalcade.

Similarly in Jerusalem, the only apparent demonstration of enthusiasm came from schoolchildren bussed in from around the country to hear Clinton speak on Sunday night. He would have seen neither the "We love you Bill" posters nor the ones calling on him to "Go home!" Otherwise, shows of support or of opposition were hard to find, though family members of terrorist victims did hold a vigil outside his Jerusalem hotel, demanding that he apologise for comparing the children of murderers and those of victims. Jerusalemites will remember the visit more for its disruption of their lives, as city centre streets, including major thoroughfares, were closed off for hours, and heavy American helicopters thundered overhead.

In the words of one Israeli, commenting as the tight security played havoc with schedules: "This guy just brings confusion with him."

He wasn't only talking about the traffic jams.

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