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Jewish World Review Jan. 12, 2000 / 16 Teves 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Clinton doing Bush no favors in Mideast -- PRESIDENT-ELECT George W. Bush should stop praising President Clinton's last-ditch Middle East diplomacy. It's harming U.S. interests and creating problems for Bush's administration.

Clinton's diplomacy has rewarded Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's refusal to accept generous Israeli peace offers and has encouraged the Palestinians to think that violence will gain them support from the U.S. government.

If Clinton should somehow succeed in brokering a peace deal before he leaves office, Bush would be forced to fulfill its terms, which are likely to include stationing thousands of U.S. troops as peacekeepers between hostile parties.

If Clinton can't achieve an agreement, which seems highly likely, Bush still will be forced to deal with unrealistically high Palestinian expectations for America's role in pushing for concessions from Israel.

In his all-out effort to achieve peace -- and perhaps win a Nobel Peace Prize -- Clinton may even have sown the seeds for a regional war. For sure, he has encouraged Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to make so many concessions that he's on the verge of near certain defeat at the hands of right-wing hawk Ariel Sharon in the Feb. 6 elections.

Whenever he's asked about Clinton's peace efforts, Bush says, correctly, that the United States has just one president at a time. On a number of occasions, though, he has said he's "impressed" by Clinton's peace efforts and "we hope it works."

These statements presumably supercede the more sober assessment made Dec. 17 by Vice President-elect Dick Cheney, who said he had "concerns that the way the Clinton administration operated in the last year or so ... has made it more difficult to reach a settlement."

About Clinton's Camp David summit between Arafat and Barak in July, Cheney said, "The Israeli government has collapsed, in part as a result of the way those negotiations were handled or mishandled."

At Camp David, Arafat turned down an offer from Barak that would give the Palestinians more than 90 percent of Arab territory occupied by Israel in 1967, recognition of a Palestinian state and partial control of Jerusalem.

In return, Arafat would have had to withdraw demands for 100 percent of the West Bank, sovereignty over Arab Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.

After Arafat's rejection, violence erupted in the area, with Palestinians using both rocks and automatic weapons. Clinton chided Arafat a few times, but basically the administration has adopted his agenda and helped him rehabilitate himself in world opinion.

In December, according to documents made public by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Clinton became the first American president to recognize a "right of return" by Palestinian refugees to homes they claim they lost when Israel was created in 1948.

According to minutes of a Dec. 13 White House meeting with negotiators from both sides, Clinton presented a peace plan that would "recognize the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Historic Palestine" or "to their homeland."

Clinton proposed that more than 2 million Palestinians living in foreign countries have the right to petition Israel for residency, which Israel could turn down. But they would be allowed to crowd into the new Palestinian state created on the West Bank.

Clinton also proposed that the Palestinian state have "sovereignty" over the Haram el Sharif, or Temple Mount, one of the holiest sites in Judaism as well as Islam.

Moreover, after Clinton met Arafat in Washington last week, the White House issued upbeat statements on Arafat's willingness to control violence and reach a deal -- although no independent evidence exists that he actually did so.

The effect was to give Arafat a PR boost while Israel is likely to take a beating, since Sharon holds a 20-point lead over Barak in the polls. Two-thirds of Israeli Jews oppose transfer of control over the Temple Mount.

Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute, said, "I've had high regard for Clinton's peace efforts over the past eight years, but the latest episode had tarnished the record. This is all about him, not about the best way to carve out an Arab-Israeli agreement."

Satloff said Clinton is on his way to handing Bush a set of Middle East outcomes that range "from bad to worse. None is good."

If Clinton achieves a deal and Barak somehow wins the election, Satloff said, Bush would have to carry out the agreement, whose "key" (according to Clinton in the December minutes) is "an international presence" to provide security.

Bush has been opposed to using U.S. troops as peacekeepers, especially in volatile areas such as Bosnia and Kosovo.

If Clinton wins an agreement and Sharon wins his election, the peace deal would collapse. Bush would have to cope with the consequences, which could include massive violence -- even violence across international borders.

If Clinton fails to achieve an agreement, violence also could erupt. And the Palestinians would expect Bush to adopt Clinton's plan as a starting point for diplomacy.

The bottom line is, next time he's asked, Bush should thank Clinton for trying in the Middle East, but he should also say that Clinton should know when to fold a losing hand.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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