The hallmark of Clinton administration policy toward the Palestinian-Israeli peace process has been its singular emphasis on the process, with a hands-off approach to substantive issues. With rare exceptions, policy during the last eight years has been marked by a reluctance to put forth U.S. positions, and a concerted effort to undermine and erode the body of United Nations resolutions that give international legitimacy to Palestinian national claims.
The U.S. pretense of neutrality purports to allow the parties to engage without outside interference that might prejudice negotiations. Yet the actual effect has been to give Israel, the far stronger party holding all the territory under negotiation, a free hand to do what it deems necessary for its own interests. Meanwhile, the U.S. looks the other way, while simultaneously undercutting the authority of any party that seeks to legitimize the Palestinian position. Because policy is designed with an Israeli focus and an emphasis on the process rather than on the substance of negotiations, policymakers do not truly understand Palestinian concerns.
President Bill Clinton boasts that he enjoys closer ties with Palestinians than any previous president. He received Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat 13 times in the White House, has been sequestered for extended negotiating sessions with Palestinians, and may even be able, as he often notes, to draw a map of the West Bank in his sleep. Yet he is discovering as his term ends that he still does not have a clear understanding of Palestinian concerns, or, indeed, a solid comprehension of the very issues involved in negotiations.
The Dennis Ross Approach:
Responsibility rests largely with Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross, the architect of U.S. policy in the region. Two features have marked his policymaking: adoption of the Israeli perspective in negotiations, and over-reliance on process. On the first point, Ross and the members of his negotiating team acknowledge having an emotional commitment to Israel and have said they cannot distinguish between their personal and professional involvement with it. On the second point, Ross has a long record of advocating a process-focused strategy. In 1988, he helped draft a key policy report notable because of its strong advocacy of non-involvement.
Ross’s approach since then has arguably created a mindset within the policymaking community that prevents a precise understanding of the issues. When the primary emphasis is on process, there is no need to know, and therefore little effort to learn, points of substance. Substance is, in fact, obscured by the desire to further the process. It comes to be regarded as an obstacle to process. This has been evident in Clinton’s haste to conclude an agreement before his term ends; he is focusing more on concluding the process than on the principal points of dispute.
The End Result:
As a result of the singular concentration on process, the Clinton team has failed to understand what the continuing occupation has meant for Palestinians. It has been unable to comprehend what Palestinians want out of negotiations and where the process has fallen short. This means that the U.S. allows Israel to proceed with unimpeded settlement construction because this is the “neutral,” hands-off approach. When the Palestinians insist that settlement construction stop because Palestinian land is being confiscated and the viability of the future Palestinian state infringed, the U.S. blames them for obstructing the peace process.
Because of its false neutrality, the Clinton administration redefined UN resolutions previously regarded by the United States as the bedrock of the peace process. The premise of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 242 is that the Occupied Territories are Arab, and that Israel must withdraw, retaining at most small stretches of land to straighten borders. Yet Ross’s fundamental assumption has been precisely the opposite. His viewpoint is that the West Bank and Gaza are Israeli or, at best, disputed territories over which the Palestinians must bargain.
The thought process that perceives Palestinian adherence to substance as an obstacle has been clearly evident in the administration’s reaction to the breakdown of the Camp David summit in July and the outbreak of the intifada. Clinton lamented at a mid-November press conference that it was an “unbelievable irony” that violence erupted when the two sides had just engaged in “the first serious discussion” of final status issues. Clinton’s statement indicates a belief that mere engagement in process should be enough to reach agreement. He disregards the fact that difficult substantive issues require extensive preliminary discussion. Moreover, he seems unconcerned that the groundwork for addressing final status issues should have been laid years ago when they were set aside as the acknowledged core concerns. His unrealistic expectation that an immediate solution was possible after years of denying these issues has the effect of automatically consigning the Palestinians’ elemental demands to the status of an obstacle.
Overlooking the Palestinian Viewpoint:
The administration’s neglect of substance completely obscured smoldering Palestinian grievances from U.S. perceptions. Administration sources have lamented to the press since the start of the intifada that they “have trouble really understanding” Arafat, and did not grasp the depth of Palestinian frustrations before they erupted into violence. This is startling given Clinton’s intimate involvement in the peace process, as well as the obvious temper of the Palestinian “street.” The Clinton team’s arguments that the parties are “so close” indicate a failure to acknowledge the significant substantive gap that remains, and to recognize the intifada as a substantive protest.
Because of this failure to understand the intifada, policymakers dismiss the uprising as nothing but unfathomable violence. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently suggested that precisely because the parties “came so close” at Camp David, “extremists” and “the enemies of peace then decide that they don’t want to follow through.” She thereby dismissed the intifada, and the grievances behind it, as illegitimate.
Despite the many contacts with Palestinians over the last decade, the U.S. continues to follow Israel’s lead in negotiations. The United States allows Israel to set the pace and the agenda, without equal regard for Palestinian demands for a different pace and a different agenda. Thus, although Palestinians were ready to deal with final status issues years ago, they had to wait until Israel was ready. Similarly, the U.S. treats Israeli security as the principal focus of negotiations, but Palestinian security is not addressed.
Before Clinton, the withdrawal provisions of UNSCR 242 had always been the U.S. starting point for negotiations. Clinton’s policymakers have instead accepted Israel’s starting point, put forth in negatives: no withdrawal to the 1967 lines, no division or ceding of East Jerusalem, no dismantling of settlements, no concessions on refugees. Then, when Israel inched away from these maximum positions at Camp David, the Clinton team gave the “concessions” undue significance simply because they constituted movement-i.e., they furthered the process-regardless of their actual significance. Because the administration studiously refuses to take a substantive position itself, it judges progress according to mere movement (usually Israel’s movement away from its maximum or Palestinian movement toward it) rather than by any objective standard of reasonableness or equity.
Before Palestinians were “allowed” into negotiations, Israeli and U.S. nitpicking over the mechanics was a way to avoid dealing with the Palestinians. When the Madrid Conference was opened to Palestinian participation, however, and the Oslo Accords recognized Palestinian existence, process was formalized and the U.S. should have moved on to substance. No such transition ever occurred, and given the current tenor of political discourse in the United States, none seems likely in the near future.
Kathleen Christison, a former political analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency, is the author of Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy (University of California Press, 1999).