By Tom Rose, publisher of the Jerusalem Post

(January 22) - In granting former US president Bill Clinton an honorary degree Sunday, Tel Aviv University lauded his "inspired personal efforts to achieve peace in different parts of the world, and particularly in the Middle East; his unwavering commitment to guaranteeing peace and security for Israel; and his warm sentiments for Israel and its people, who esteem him as a great leader, brilliant statesman, and beloved friend." There is no doubt that Israelis continue to be captivated by Clinton's charisma, and revel in the warmth that he is able to project. In a more profound sense, however, Clinton's presidency was a dangerous one for Israel, and his approach toward peace-making fundamentally flawed.

Bill Clinton can hardly be blamed for what Ehud Barak did at the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000; it is not reasonable to expect that an American president would more zealously guard Israel's interest than an Israeli prime minister. Nor can Clinton be blamed for the wave of violence and terrorism launched by Yasser Arafat in the last months of his presidency.

Indeed, some have unfairly criticized Clinton for "forcing" Arafat to take up the gun when he all but blamed Arafat for the failure of the summit.

Clinton, however, bears a heavy degree of responsibility for failing to switch gears when the current Palestinian offensive was launched against Israel in late September 2000. In the intervening period following the failure of Camp David, the United States appropriately put pressure on Arafat for failing to seriously negotiate, let alone make concessions approaching those made by the Israeli side. Logically speaking, the Palestinian decision to compound intransigence with violence and terrorism should have brought even greater US pressure. Instead, the Clinton administration did the exact opposite: It maintained a strict moral equivalence between the Israeli desire to negotiate and the Palestinian resort to violence.

Israelis at the time instinctively felt that their country was at a very dangerous moment. After making unprecedented concessions and ripping through almost every red line established by Labor and Likud governments alike, the Barak government was making further concessions under fire.

Again, the Barak government's desire for an agreement at almost any cost cannot be blamed on Clinton, but pursuit of an agreement is not the only explanation for Barak's behavior. Barak probably also felt that if he cut off negotiations and responded militarily to Palestinian terrorism, he would immediately lose the backing of the Clinton administration, which was constantly calling for restraint on "both sides." Israel was between a rock and a hard place, and on one of those uncomfortable sides was the United States.

There was nothing inevitable about Israel's predicament at that time, and the party in the best and most pivotal position to do something was the United States. Once it was clear that Israel was under attack, and Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount was just a convenient excuse, the United States could have backed Israel's right to self-defense and drastically cut back its ties with the Palestinians. If the Clinton administration had done this, the current Palestinian offensive would have ended as quickly as it began, because prolonging it would only have increased support for Israel and Palestinian isolation.

For all his friendship for Israel, Clinton's speech this week maintained a familiar pattern of symmetry between the parties. While clearly calling on Arafat to end terrorism and violence, he also beseeched Israelis to "never give up the dream of peace." In a classic neutral formulation, Clinton proclaimed, "Leaders have to prepare people for peace by saying that compromise is honorable, not shameful, and is a sign of strength, not weakness." Even now, Clinton has to pretend that obstacles to peace are more or less equally distributed between the parties: Both sides need to be urged to compromise and make peace. This is, frankly, insulting, and Clinton of all people should know better. If anything, the main problem is that Israel's intense desire for peace has raised expectations to astronomical levels on the Palestinian side, including the hope that Israel will commit suicide for peace.

After many dead on both sides, the Bush administration finally broke with the evenhandedness it inherited from Clinton and last month started explicitly supporting Israel's right to self-defense. This was a watershed change in US policy and, if combined with a willingness to stop pretending that Arafat is indispensable, it will force Arafat to either end terrorism or relinquish power. There is no real symmetry in what is missing to create true prospects for peace. Defeating radicalism and rejectionism, whether in the form of Arafat or Saddam Hussein, could provide real hope for peace; Israeli willingness to compromise with terrorism would only fuel the flames.


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