January 22, 2001

January 22, 2001 | Commentary on Middle East

ED012201: Building Bridges on Sand

Our now-former president, Bill Clinton, must be wondering why, after months of diplomatic wrangling and personal overtures, his efforts to forge a new Middle East peace accord failed. But how could an agreement that makes too many demands on the Israelis and too few on the Palestinians have had any hope of succeeding?

Consider Clinton's "bridging proposal," which was meant to close immense gaps between the Palestinian Authority and Israel on a number of issues. Once again, he pressed Israel to make critical concessions that would severely undermine its security without creating the foundation for a stable and lasting peace: rigorous Palestinian compliance with their previous commitments to end its low-intensity war against Israel.

For example, Clinton expected Israel to surrender roughly 95 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians and withdraw its military presence along the border with Jordan after only six years, despite the fact that in a crisis this region could become Israel's border with Iraq. To help offset the risks this would entail for Israel, the former president offered a vaguely defined "international presence" of peacekeeping monitors. But such a presence, long desired by Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat to weaken Israel's position, is anathema to most Israelis, who naturally want to maintain their own security.

Clinton also broke precedent in the agreement, suggesting that the Israelis cede control over part of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount -- the most sacred of Jewish holy sites. Such an abdication would jeopardize access to Judaism's principal religious and historical sites, undermine the legitimacy of the Zionist state, and likely transform the capital into another Belfast.

In addition, Clinton essentially recognized the right of more than 3.5 million Palestinian refugees to claim entry into Israel, and the right of Israel to refuse them entry. But this could easily spur tensions and give Palestinians a pretext for backing out of future agreements.

But despite their tilt against Israel, Clinton's proposal was also politically unacceptable to the Palestinians, who obstinately maintain their demands for more territory, and -- goaded by Arafat's constant appeals for a jihad (holy war) -- have no incentive to compromise. Given the past success of Arafat's brinkmanship and his use of violence, as well as Clinton's pressure on Israel to make substantial concessions, Arafat had little incentive to make genuine concessions to Israel. He also recognized that neither Clinton nor Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak could guarantee their successors would deliver on any concessions made now.

Clinton based his overly ambitious diplomatic effort largely on the importance of his personal ties to Arafat and Barak. But this demonstrated an overconfidence in his own ability to pull an agreement out of his diplomatic hat and grossly underestimated Arafat's willingness to encourage unrest to extract even more concessions.

By pursuing peace at any price, Clinton repeated the mistakes he made at last July's Camp David summit -- trying to induce Israel to concede too much too soon for too little from the Palestinians and pressing ahead without adequate diplomatic groundwork. This approach damaged not only his own credibility and prestige, but those of the United States as well.

And raising Arab expectations only to dash them heightens tensions and increases the risk of war. If Barak were to sign an agreement that was later rejected by the Knesset (Israel's parliament), Arafat would secure a propaganda victory that would further isolate Israel and could trigger a regional war.

The Bush administration has little choice but to distance itself from Clinton's shaky proposal. Pressuring Israel to make greater concessions -- despite the Palestinians' failure to respond to past concessions with anything but orchestrated violence -- would only reward the Palestinians for their intifada (uprising).

But that's only the beginning. U.S. policymakers must fundamentally rethink an appeasement policy that has raised Palestinian expectations, whetted Arafat's appetite for concessions, and led the peace process into a diplomatic dead end. The only way to salvage the negotiations now is to discard wishful thinking, hold the Palestinian Authority to its previous commitments, and demand an end to Palestinian terrorism.

James Phillips is a research fellow specializing in Middle Eastern affairs in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

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