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Jewish World Review Jan. 9, 2001 / 14 Teves, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Clinton’s Last Stand -- GIVE PRESIDENT CLINTON credit for determination. Faced with impossible odds against his goal of brokering a Middle East peace agreement before his term ends on Jan. 20, he prefers to soldier on rather than admit defeat. The question is: Will his all-out push for one last photo-op triumph create more problems than it solves?

Given the Palestinian’s refusal to give up their so-called “right of return” — whose purpose is to swamp Israel with hostile Arabs and destroy it as a Jewish state — the odds are heavily against Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat going along with Clinton’s peace proposals. Considering the fact that the president’s plan gives Arafat far more than he could have imagined in a peace agreement before the Oslo process started whittling away at Israel’s “red lines” on territory and Jerusalem, that may be a costly mistake for the Palestinians.

That’s because the president’s Israeli partner — Prime Minister Ehud Barak — appears to have almost as little time left in power as Clinton. “Evenhanded” American observers may think the latest round of Palestinian violence has produced “progress” toward peace in the form of fresh Israeli concessions. But the Israeli electorate has been horrified by Arafat’s reversion to violence and terror as a negotiating tactic; it is also uncertain about Barak’s willingness to go even further toward satisfying Palestinian ambitions in Jerusalem.

The result is an Israeli election next month that may produce a result few would have thought possible. Likud leader Ariel Sharon currently holds a commanding lead in the race for prime minister. Last week’s polls showed Barak trailing Sharon by as much as 28 points. While polls should not be trusted and four weeks is a long time in Israeli politics, America’s foreign-policy establishment needs to start thinking seriously about a change in power in Jerusalem.

That’s why President Clinton’s reported aim of issuing a “declaration of principles” by which peace can be achieved is a bad idea. Clinton’s principles were articulated in a speech the president gave Sunday to the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-Oslo American Jewish group. He did oppose the flooding of Israel with Palestinian refugees but also advocated a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Clinton said he believes the city should be undivided, though he failed to explain this contradiction.

I understand that the president wants to leave office with something to show for his Mideast work over the last eight years. A declaration of principles isn’t as dramatic as a treaty signing on the White House lawn, but it is something he can highlight in his memoirs.

Rather than helping his successor and the next Israeli government, Clinton’s declaration will hamper any new efforts to end the violence. By enshrining concessions on Jerusalem, the territories and refugees in an American document, Clinton seems to be seeking to commit both President-elect George W. Bush and a possible Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the results of recent talks. That would be unfair to both men and show a lack of respect for Israeli democracy.

Clinton’s declaration seeks to shove a strategy down Israel’s throat that has already failed to do anything but increase the violence. If Israelis do reject Barak in favor of Sharon’s different approach, the United States should respect the will of Israel’s voters.

This past week, Israel’s security forces uncovered the fact that those responsible for the latest terror bombing in Tel Aviv were working for Fatah — Yasser Arafat’s own organization — and directly aided by P.A. security. The apologists for the Palestinian Authority will have a hard time explaining this one. This revelation should have dampened Clinton’s enthusiasm for tying Israel to far-reaching concessions to a peace partner that practices terrorism, but it did not. Unlike other waves of terrorism, the latest violence cannot be blamed on “enemies of peace” who supposedly oppose Arafat.

In the coming months, Washington’s attitude with a new administration should be one of restraint and humility, rather than the hubristic quest for a legacy that has animated Clinton’s efforts. It is time for President Clinton to start gracefully withdrawing from office. The cause of peace and a rational American foreign policy will be ill-served by a parting declaration that refuses to deal with the realities of the Middle East.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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