The Obama administration faces serious challenges inside and outside. It is accused of “weakness,” want of a coherent strategic view and “sheepish following” by conservative hard-liners and a few angry liberal and left-wing critics as well, though for different reasons. In trying to meet the challenges in the Middle East, especially regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the Obama administration has two recent precedents to meditate, though. The Clinton and the Bush performances definitely opposed to each other: complete commitment to the peace process (Clinton) and “wait and see” passive approach (Bush). Both were marred with wrong presumptions, hence their failure.
There is no question that despite president Clinton time and energy consuming commitment to the peace process in the Middle East the results were much disappointing, which may be a deterring factor, advising caution to any administration. The failure earned Clinton harsh criticism from political rivals and various actors and observers. When Bush succeeded Clinton it was known since the early days he would no longer pursue the same policy considered by some influential people in the Republican administration as “vain” or unsuccessful.
It has even been suggested that Clinton was personally “humiliated” by the Arab and Israeli refusal to move toward peace. The Arabs considered him too much “pro-Israeli,” and the Israelis and their friends regarded him as “too close” to the Arabs. Each side had its reasons. Yet, “the Clinton administration in its first four years,” wrote Georgetown University professor Robert J. Lieber, “was closer to Israel than all previous US administrations.” How then could Clinton be accused of not having done everything to protect his Israeli friends?
The point is that this solidarity has limits. Indeed, the Clinton administration did not support the policy of wild colonisation Israel practised. So many times we saw Nicholas Burns, spokesman for the State Department, stressing that this policy of settlements does not help the peace process but complicates it.
The Washington Post (Dec.15, 1996) quoted official US sources denouncing the Israeli policy as “violating the spirit of the 1995 agreements signed with the PLO.” On Dec.16, president Clinton himself made a statement criticising the Israeli settlement activity as an obstacle to peace. And as far as we can judge by the official statements, the Obama administration has not moved away from this course, although it stopped pressuring Israel on this issue.
The peace process initiated by the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves during secret negotiations in Oslo, while public negotiations were conducted simultaneously in Washington, could not be anti-Arab, unless it is emptied up of its substance. In any case, the Clinton administration was not alone to be criticised for meagre results. The Israeli government and the PLO of Yasser Arafat were no less. Those who did not –” and still do not want peace –” have done everything possible to terminate the agreements and embarrass Arafat, Barak and Clinton: They have not failed to remind Arafat of Sadat’s fate, and obviously Arafat was impressed. Under great pressure, he himself acknowledged he was afraid in a public statement, which also served him as a justification whenever he would not –” or could not –” accept what was proposed.
Barak too was under pressure: Rabin had been a victim of those Israeli right-wing extremists who do not want peace either, and Rabin’s blood was still hot as his death was more recent than Sadat’s.
As for Clinton, he was not in a more brilliant situation because, during his second term, which will be crucial for the peace process –” the policy of “dual containment” that he inherited from his predecessor (Bush) was also stalled with respect to Iraq and Iran.
But during Clinton’s second term –” in November 1997 and in January and February 1998 –” the challenges to obtaining the Arab support to enforce UN resolutions became stronger, and this was partly explained by the slowdown of the Arab-Israeli peace process.
When the United States relaunched this process through the Wye River agreement in October 1998, Clinton won more support from the Arab states during the confrontation in mid-November 1998 with Iraq. And when the Wye River accords failed in December of that year, Arab public opinion was affected and again shifted against Clinton when he decided to bomb Iraq.
This back and forth go-between “support and rejection” of US policy on the Arab side was connected directly or indirectly to the Palestinian problem. It shows firstly, the importance of this issue to the public opinion in Arab countries. Secondly, it shows the difficulties inherent to the peace process itself –” which have nothing to do with Iraq or Iran.
The failure of Clinton caused the cautious reluctance of the Bush administration. The rationale was: when Arabs and Israelis are ready to make peace, “we” –” the Americans –” will help them. But before that, nobody can do anything, and Clinton had tried in vain.
The Obama administration’s last statement of abandoning pressure for resuming the process was apparently following a similar logic. This is actually incoherent with the overall attitude of the Democrats (Carter and Clinton). The basics of this approach were faulty: you cannot give a party (i.e. Israel) important incentives just to obtain concessions on what has been considered by all US administration so far as a “red line” not to bypass: the settlements issue. No US president has ever accepted the Israeli occupation since 1967 of disputed territories as a de facto state. So, there was no need to entice the Israelis on this issue for it made Obama appear badly in need for an “agreement” between the two parties. It made Netanyahu more confident about his influence not only in Israel but also in the United States. It emboldened him. The US lost an important asset: to be a good intermediary is to stick to one’s own principles not to sell them off.
Nor it is better to be passive.
Let us remind Mrs Clinton of what president Clinton said when he was preparing the Wye River Conference and facing the same situation that Obama and Mrs Clinton are facing today, with Netanyahu and Arafat: “It seemed to me that we didn’t have much to lose, and I always preferred failure in a worthy effort to inaction for fear of failure.”