Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post of April 16, 1999


By Gerald M. Steinberg

One of the positive features of the American system of government is that when one branch gets something very wrong, there is a chance that another branch will limit the damage. This is the case with the American policy on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In their craving for a foreign policy success, Clinton administration officials have created a mythical Middle East, but Congress, with participation from both parties, is attempting to prevent them from straying too far from reality.

The Clinton administration has been a foreign policy disaster, as the president flits from issue to issue with short periods of high-intensity attention, but little follow-through. This pattern is clearly evident with respect to Kosovo, Iraq, and the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. The process that began in Oslo had been collapsing for years, and the Wye Plantation summit (amidst the impeachment process) was too late to reverse the rot.

Knowing that changes in Palestinian behavior would be very difficult to accomplish, the White House took the easy route by blaming the Netanyahu government. However, members of Congress, who justify their role in foreign policy by keeping a close watch on the Executive Branch, were not convinced, and began to examine the details.

A few weeks ago, Republican Senator Connie Mack (from Florida) came to the area to learn the details for himself. Mack returned with one basic question: "How is it possible to engage in peace negotiations with people who maintain the right to obliterate you, who are filled with hatred toward you, and who harbor the dream of one day destroying your homeland?"

Mack did not come as a supporter of the Netanyahu government, and his report is properly outside the framework of the Israeli election campaign. He came with a common-sense approach to the evidence. In a speech delivered on the Senate floor, he presented his stark conclusions. "What I saw convinced me that the Palestinian leadership does not want peace. They want, first, their own state which they can control with total power. Then they want to use that state to eliminate the State of Israel."

In the wake of Senator Mack's report, and while Yasser Arafat was being welcomed again at the White House, 50 members of Congress wrote a stinging letter to Clinton on Palestinian incitement to violence. Placing the issues in their proper context, they noted that "The issue here is not disagreements over certain aspects of the permanent agreement, but the incitement and indoctrination of a whole generation to hate Jews to such an extent that irrespective of existing formal agreements, genuine reconciliation and peace may be impossible to attain."

By an overwhelming majority, Congress also passed resolutions opposing a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood, warning that such a move "would be a grievous violation" of the Oslo Agreement that "would not be recognized" by the United States. Thus, while Arafat was collecting rewards in Europe and the White House for agreeing not to take this step (and destroy any chance of eventually gaining control over more territory), Congress was reminding the Palestinian leader of the costs of such a move.

The contrast between the Congressional assessments and those coming from the State Department (known, for good reason, as Foggy Bottom), could not be sharper. In their eagerness to salvage something from the shattered Middle East policy, officials of the Clinton administration seemed to have gone from supporting Israel to "even handedness," and then to a pro-Palestinian bias. They have apparently given up on efforts to change Palestinian and Arab "hearts and minds," and have focused on what appears to be easier - changing Israeli policies and its government.

However, there are still enough people in Congress who understand that Israel, like the United States and in sharp contrast to the rest of the Middle East, is a democracy. In 1996, the Israeli public rejected the simplistic myth that Palestinian terrorism and incitement were somehow compatible with the concept of peace. Clinton's anti-terrorist summit at Sharm e-Sheikh transparently designed to rescue Shimon Peres's election campaign, did not change any votes. Congress recognizes that the Palestinian rejection of Israeli legitimacy still constitutes the main obstacle to progress. The evidence is too strong to be ignored, even by those who would prefer to see Netanyahu and his policies replaced in the next Israeli elections.

The central problem with all of the agreements, from Oslo through Wye, is that they have not changed these deeply rooted attitudes. Mack also got this one right, noting that "There will not be peace until hearts and minds are changed, and we must focus our attention on these issues. If the Palestinian leadership fails to abandon incitement of hatred, persecution, and terrorism, then we are all dreaming, only dreaming."

The question is whether anyone in the State Department or White House is listening.

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