Mideast Memo to President Bush: Treat 'Em Mean, Keep 'Em Keen

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Last weekend, Israeli negotiators in the increasingly doomed Middle East talks said that the peace ball was now "in President Clinton's court." Palestinian leaders, for their part, doubted that Clinton would get a peace deal.

What's wrong with this picture?

A lot. Instead of giving a long, hard look at themselves as they try to resolve issues of security, religion and nationhood, the participants are pointing fingers at the referee. After eight years of peacemaking, they're pretty much back where they started, although with a lot more mutual distrust.

The Clinton experience, where the President has inserted himself between Israelis and Palestinians as judge and jury of their intractable conflict, ought to serve as a cautionary tale for the Mideast policy of the incoming Bush administration.

Worn and wan smiles

President Clinton last weekend reminded Israelis that their land is also home to the Palestinians, and to live in peace the two sides would have to share it in two separate states. He reiterated his proposal for splitting Jerusalem, allowing Israel to govern those parts that are Jewish and the Palestinians to govern those parts that are Arab — although that's light-years more difficult than it sounds, since what's really at issue is exactly which parts are Jewish and which parts are Arab. And he urged the Palestinian refugees to forget about ever returning to Israel, saying this would undermine the very basis of the Jewish state.

The need to reiterate such general principles so late in the game is an indicator of how far things have slipped. According to the Oslo timetables, the final maps should have long ago been printed and the Israeli-Palestinian divorce amicably concluded. But Oslo is over, and like a soap opera pulled before the end of the season, its conclusion will be a hastily scribbled affair rather than the epic denouement intended by its original authors. Expect to see President Clinton reading some general declaration of principles, while Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat look on, smiling wanly. If he's lucky, he'll get them to shake hands on camera. But there will be no deal.

Of course, while the Clinton administration can certainly be faulted for its handling of the peace process, the ultimate blame for its failure must rest with the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. But President Clinton may well have helped bring on the current crisis by prematurely convening the Camp David summit, which invited both sides to submit their final bids on Jerusalem and created the climate for the new intifada. And the President's micromanaging approach clearly sent the wrong message: The very fact that Arafat got more face time with Clinton than any other world leader is a sign that the administration inflated the importance of the Mideast among U.S. foreign policy priorities, which encouraged both sides to overestimate their importance to Washington and therefore to relinquish too much of the responsibility for their own peace process.

Leadership failure

In order to conclude a peace deal, Palestinians and Israelis both have to understand — and confront — each other's fears and concerns, and articulate positions that take full account of those. They managed that much in the process leading up to Oslo, an agreement concluded with very little direct U.S. involvement. But with the U.S. increasingly playing arbitrator, both sides were more inclined to simply draw lines in the sand and leave it to President Clinton to split the difference. Hence the tone of last weekend's comments.

What President Clinton can't be blamed for, however, is the breakdown itself. The growing gulf between Israeli and Palestinian positions is a function of the failure of the leadership on both sides to fully apprise their followers of the painful compromises required for a final peace deal. For the Palestinian side at this stage to make the right of return of refugees to Israel a sticking point suggests that Arafat has simply been hoping to pull the wool over the eyes of his followers, because that right was plainly not within the ballpark of the game to which he'd signed on. And to be telling Palestinians, as the Palestinian Authority has done, that Jews have no claim whatsoever on the Temple Mount isn't exactly preparing them for the inevitable compromise implied by Oslo.

The Israelis, too, have misled their people as to the basic requirements of peace. It's hardly surprising that there's a backlash in Israel against Barak's offers to give parts of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, but only because Barak had, until as late as the Camp David talks, insisted that Jerusalem was indivisibly Israeli — even though he can't have seriously imagined he could get a peace deal without somehow sharing the Holy City. On Israeli settlements in the territories occupied since 1967, too, Barak has failed to inform his people of the requirements of peace. He may have wanted to avert a showdown with the religious zealots of the settlement movement, but it's plain to see that peace will be impossible while Palestinian territories are still dotted with Israeli settlements built on land expropriated by an occupying army.

Israelis and Palestinians retreat

The tripartite leadership failure that has seen Oslo crash and burn is, unfortunately, not easily rectified. President-elect Bush will inherit a situation far more complex than that encountered by Clinton when the completed Oslo Accord pretty much landed on his desk. Both sides have now retreated considerably: The Palestinian uprising and his appeals for pan-Arab support have left Arafat with a lot less room to maneuver than he had during the Oslo years. Moderate Arab regimes have made clear they won't back compromises on Jerusalem and the fate of the refugees, and without their backing Arafat has no way of making concessions that would be strenuously opposed by his own people. And Israeli voters look set to boot out Barak on February 6, and replace him with Ariel Sharon, a man who'll say the word peace a lot even as he's making war.

So while Arafat and Barak may even be tempted to joint President Clinton in one last photo op in the hope of persuading the Bush team that it's worth remaining engaged with the peace process, the truth is they're a lot further away from a final deal than they were six months ago. And that may make it prudent for the Bush administration to simply withdraw. Right now, both sides may need to be reminded of the consequences of failure. And they may have a more realistic appraisal of their options if its made abundantly clear that there's no parent in Washington waiting to step in and arbitrate.