Palestinians need new leaders; Continuation of Clinton policies begs disaster
June 25, 2001
by Meyrav Wurmser
When the Bush administration sent CIA Director George Tenet to the Middle East, it reaffirmed a policy of continuity with the Clinton administration. Then and now, American policy focused on maintaining a dying negotiations process. Although the Oslo process has taken Israel from its most internally secure circumstance a decade ago to the most violent internal one in its history - even more insecure than its first unstable years - there is no evidence that the administration is re-evaluating Mr. Clinton's flagship policy. It is still considered the only formula for peace though it produced only violence. But the violence is only part of the cost of continuing the Oslo process. The process demands priority over supporting our regional friends, particularly Israel. It enshrines evenhandedness, where our democratic ally is put on par with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the Mitchell report, a Clinton-era initiative adopted by the Powell State Department. If there is continuity of policy, then there will be continuity in results.
The Clinton administration made Arab-Israeli negotiations the cornerstone of its regional policy. It crushingly failed when Yasser Arafat launched a war last fall. Devoid of any new ideas, the Clinton team tried to salvage the unsalvageable. But once again, harsh regional reality slapped the American peace team in the face. As violence escalated, Mr. Clinton pitifully admitted during a farewell dinner at the Israel Policy Forum that this failure left him "heartbroken."
Now, as then, a policy that puts a dying peace process ahead of our principles and friends will fail. Only a policy that abandons Oslo's failing framework and adopts a fresh look toward America's role in the region might avoid continuing the previous administration's record of failure. In its first months, the Bush administration signaled a refreshing change with its policy of non-involvement. Realizing that America could contribute little to solving the crisis, the new administration chose to focus on Iraq and give Mr. Arafat the cold shoulder. But as Palestinian violence reached unprecedented levels, and daily life in Israel came under the heavy shadow of terror, the administration was finally seduced into engagement.
It is a bad idea to tie a ship to a sinking barge. But that is now happening. Washington's new involvement is tied to battered ideas. In the absence of policy, President Bush's Middle East team chose to revive the ghost of the Oslo process. All that needs to happen now to restart negotiations, we are told, is that Mr. Arafat will cease the use of terror. It's all just a question of "incentivizing" Mr. Arafat, of administering the right dose of carrots and sticks to make him fulfill the obligations he broke in the past.
Instead of viewing Mr. Arafat and the PLO for what they are - terrorists bent on perpetuating the conflict and leading the Palestinians to another Nakba (a Palestinian word describing the disaster of 1948 ) - the Bush administration is now reasserting Oslo's axiom which views them as partners for peace. This, despite the fact that Mr. Arafat reserved his most brutal use of violence exactly for those periods when Shimon Peres or Ehud Barak, the most compromising premiers Israel ever had, were in power. Mr. Arafat chose to strike exactly at the moment when the Palestinians could have gotten the most far-reaching compromises from Israel because the organization he heads is incapable of giving up its ideological soul: a permanent revolutionary struggle against the Jewish state. Mr. Arafat, in other words, cannot make peace. Therefore, his agenda is perpetual destabilization, as it was twice before in Jordan and in Lebanon. Regardless of Israel's concessions, he always invents new demands as excuses to assault it. Just as the Israeli settlements || that were never even mentioned after the Camp David negotiations || serve as his current pretext for violence, Mr. Arafat always attaches new conditions to truly stopping incitement and terror against Israel. Washington needs to re-examine and eventually abandon the premise that Mr. Arafat and the PLO are partners for peace.
As for the Israelis, they have sent mixed signals. On the one hand, they blast Mr. Arafat. On the other hand, they lay out a road map to re-engage him. It is thus only natural for Washington, thinking that it is helping Israel achieve its goals, to establish a strict structure of incentives and disincentives to prod Mr. Arafat back to the table, which, after all, was Israel's expressed intent. This must change. Israel must make it clear that it sees the PLO's empowerment as a mistake, the continuation of which further intensifies the conflict and sabotages the possibility of a solution.
Any solution to the Palestinian problem will require a joint American-Israeli political effort that will no longer view the PLO as the only act in town. This must not be a half-hearted policy meant to threaten Mr. Arafat and modify his behavior, but an all-out effort to replace the PLO's rule. Half-hearted efforts only get people killed. What is needed is a policy that differentiates between the PLO and the Palestinian people, the bulk of which suffer under the PLO's yoke. The destruction of the current PLO regime will enable other, more moderate Palestinian forces that exist in Palestinian society, but under Mr. Arafat's rule were suppressed, to emerge. Most Palestinians seek peace. A clear American and Israeli endorsement - in terms of recognition, money, and support - of an alternative Palestinian leadership might bring the people of this troubled region much needed tranquility.
This article appeared in The Washington Times on June 15, 2001.
Meyrav Wurmser was formerly a Senior Fellow with Hudson Institute.