Did Bill Clinton Start the Intifada?

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White House press secretaries don't usually share their personal beliefs with the nation's media — at least not on company time. So last week's comments by Ari Fleischer suggesting President Clinton's failed push for a final peace deal at Camp David helped spark the intifada actually offer some insight into Bush administration thinking. Although Fleischer was later forced by administration higher-ups to retract his statement that "You can make the case that in an attempt to shoot the moon and get nothing, more violence resulted," the press secretary doesn't make this stuff up on the fly. His comment not only tracks with the Bush administration's own hands-off approach to the Middle East conflict; it's a sharper reiteration of a point President Bush made on the campaign trail and after — that the U.S. should refrain from forcing the pace or imposing a settlement.

But is this current Middle Eastern violence really the result of Clinton unreasonably raising expectations? There has been plenty of valid of criticism in foreign policy circles of his micromanaging of the peace process. Clinton allowed himself to be drawn in as the mediator of first resort, which diminished the gravity of his own interventions — witness the fact that the President spent almost a full week at Wye River in 1998 cajoling Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu into a relatively minor set of agreements. It's also quite possible to make the case that Camp David brought on the moment of crisis by forcing both sides to finally confront their most intractable differences. But that occurred not because of some impatience on the part of the Clinton administration, but rather by the schedule prescribed by the Oslo Accords themselves. (And those, remember, pretty much landed on Clinton's desk in 1993 as a done deal.)

Oslo postponed "final status" talks on the most difficult questions between Israelis and Palestinians for six years of "confidence-building" that in the end built very little confidence. The critical point, though, which appears to elude Fleischer and the Bush team, is that it took the Oslo Accord to end the last intifada. It's simply ludicrous to imagine that Israelis and Palestinians were peacefully getting on with their lives until Bill Clinton got them all fired up with ideas about sharing Jerusalem. Before Oslo, Palestinians had spent five-years in a state of violent rebellion against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Oslo ended that revolt only because it offered Palestinians a peaceful means of getting rid of the occupation and achieving statehood in exchange for guaranteeing Israel's security.

There was something inevitable about the collapse of Oslo sparking a resumption of hostilities. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are unlikely to ever accept living peacefully under occupation. That's why peace plans from Oslo to the current Saudi proposal start with the premise that an end to hostilities requires negotiating the terms of Israeli withdrawal from all or most of the territories seized in 1967.

Fleischer's statement suggests that some in the Bush administration believe peace can be achieved in the West Bank and Gaza prior to, and separately from moves toward a political settlement. That's dangerous, because it ignores the reality that the violence is not separate from the political conflict between Israelis and Palestinians — it's an expression of that conflict. Arafat urges his followers to fight until they have won a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Sharon warned this week that no peace talks can occur until the Palestinians had been "badly beaten" and were ready to accept Israel's terms. Both sides are continuing to negotiate their future relationship — but with weapons. And they'll continue to negotiate that way until such time as they have fumbled their way, with U.S. help, to a new formula for negotiating with words.