Why Arab Moderates Killed Clinton's Plan

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Yasser Arafat is escorted by officials upon his arrival in Cairo

Bill Clinton's final Mideast peace plan is dead in the water. And, surprising to some, the fatal blow was delivered by Washington's closest allies in the Arab world.

Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo Thursday rejected a key component of the Clinton plan when they insisted that Palestinian refugees had a "sacred" right to return to their former homes in Israel. Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak immediately retorted that his country would never allow some 4 million Palestinians to return, and warned that the alternative to a peace agreement was an endless cycle of violence between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Thursday's exchange left the continued exchange of views in Washington looking like little more than going through the motions of discussing a deal that appears to have become politically impossible.

The warnings against compromise on the refugees and on Jerusalem articulated by Egypt's foreign minister Amr Mousa on behalf of the Arab League states kicked the chair out from under Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Arafat had on Tuesday accepted "with reservations" President Clinton's negotiating framework, but the Cairo decision nixed a key component of the plan. Although it was never made public, the U.S. proposal was said to involve Israel withdrawing from all of Gaza and 95 percent of the West Bank, and recognizing Palestinian sovereignty in parts of East Jerusalem, including the Islamic holy sites atop the Temple Mount, in exchange for the Palestinians dropping their demand that some 4 million refugees be given the right to return to Israel.

Arafat in a box

The Arab position is a fatal blow precisely because of the role played by the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan throughout the peace process. They have traditionally created the political cover for Arafat to make compromises that his own people find unacceptable; now they're doing the opposite. The motivation of the moderate Arab leaders is twofold: To avoid falling foul of the mounting popular anger at the Israelis and Americans in their own countries and because many of them are faced with large Palestinian populations that they do not want to accommodate forever.

Running out the clock

The net effect of their decision has put Arafat in a box. He can't go down the road mapped by President Clinton without Arab support, because most Palestinians would balk at its provisions. And now, Arab rejection will reinforce Palestinian opposition to the plan, leaving Arafat very, very alone.

Not that the Palestinian leader was about to sign a deal, anyway. Both Arafat and the Israelis had been careful to agree to Clinton's plan "with reservations"; that way they could avoid being blamed for the inevitable failure of the U.S. leader's final peace effort as well as providing for a somewhat graceful exit.

The baton is passed to Bush

Now, of course, the problem is one for the next administration. And the incoming Bush White House will be handed something a lot more complex and dangerous than a peace process that simply requires a final push, as the Clinton spinmeisters like to suggest. The breakdown over the rights of refugees who've been prevented since 1948 by Israeli law from returning to Israel suggests that both Arafat and his Arab backers have been forced by the anger on the Palestinian and Arab streets to retreat from compromises they may have been prepared to make at an earlier stage of the peace process. And the intifada of the past three months has woken Israeli leaders up to the vast gulf between their own and their neighbors' ideas of the shape of an acceptable final settlement, which has set the Jewish state on a political swing back to the right. All of which leaves the region no closer to a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians than it was when President Clinton first came to power.

With reporting by Jamil Hamad