Bmaz at Firedoglake wrote an interesting post (which you probably need to read before reading this) about what would be the significance of Senator Hillary Clinton’s appointment as Secretary State in a Barack Obama Administration, should that appointment come to pass. It set me thinking about the “Clinton Legacy” in the Middle East, and specifically about whether the Clinton era looks so good to Americans not because of its own virtues, but simply because just about anything looks good compared to the general awfulness of the administration that followed.
I think bmaz’s main point, about the likelihood that I/P peace will again be center-stage in U.S. foreign policy, is correct. I don’t think there is any hope of an Obama administration rehabilitating America’s international image and safeguarding its interests (especially, but not only, in the Middle East) unless it first tackles the issue that is of visceral importance to people in the Middle East and beyond, and that is Palestine. And I expect Obama understands that.
But I would quibble with a couple of things. The first is that I think Americans overestimate how successful the Bill Clinton Administration was in brokering Middle East peace. Clinton began by having the Oslo Accords dropped as a huge free gift in his lap, and after his eight years in office the Accords were in ruins, the settlements had doubled, the credibility of negotiation had plummeted and the rejectionists were suddenly more popular than ever. That doesn’t say much for the quality of American “mediation” over those eight years. Nor does the fact that if you look at the most successful, or at least the most ground-breaking, talks that took place in the Clinton years – i.e. Oslo, the Israel-Jordan peace settlement, and the Taba Talks – precisely none of them were mediated directly by the United States. The talks that were directly mediated by the U.S. either produced agreements that turned out to be not worth the paper they were written on (Wye River) or disastrously crashed and burned (Camp David). That too doesn’t say much for the ability of the Clinton Administration to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians.
You can argue over why U.S. mediation wasn’t that effective. The first thing to say is that Clinton didn’t really engage the I/P conflict till very late in his Presidency. U.S. Presidents are (for internal political reasons) scared of tackling anything to do with Israel, and Clinton was no different. His Clinton Parameters came woefully late in the day – as he already had one foot out the door - but might have made a difference if he’d presented them as little as six months earlier. From the Palestinian perspective, Clinton’s mediators looked like a who’s who of former AIPAC officials, who seemed sometimes more Israeli than the Israelis. One of Clinton’s own Middle East advisors (Aaron Miller) says that in retrospect his team acted like “Israel’s lawyer” rather than as an honest broker. Israel’s FM at Camp David (Shlomo Ben-Ami) has acknowledged that if he had been a Palestinian he wouldn’t have accepted what was on offer there either. Gilad Sher (who was Barak’s chief negotiator at Camp David) described one surreal scene where Dennis Ross – the “mediator” - got mad at Sher because the Israelis were offering more on Jerusalem than he (Ross) wanted them to offer! So maybe let’s not get carried away by what a respected honest broker Clinton’s team was, or what a good deal Arafat turned down at Camp David. Maybe Clinton’s era looks good because we’re comparing it to Bush II; but compared to what came before, Clinton tilted the U.S. overwhelmingly towards Israel, and in doing so cost the U.S. its ability to be an effective mediator.
My second quibble would be that even if Bill Clinton were God’s gift to Middle East peace, why would that make Hillary Clinton an appropriate Secretary of State? Hillary has said some remarkably crapulous things about the I/P conflict during the last few years. You can rationalize them on the grounds that she’s a Senator from New York State so what else would she say, but they hardly qualify her to be SoS. If the Bill Clinton legacy is so compelling, then make Bill Clinton your SoS. Or better still, make someone with real diplomatic experience your SoS, and make Bill Clinton your special envoy to the Middle East (a position which, if you’re really serious about Middle East peace, you could make Cabinet level).
As for the Geyer remark cited in bmaz’s post, I agree that we might well be on the verge of an historic breakthrough. But my disagreement with Geyer would be two-fold. First, I think she gets the dynamic of the situation wrong when she suggests Israel and the U.S. will do the right thing, and the Palestinians will be forced to follow. I think this terribly underestimates how strongly the strategic balance is turning against the U.S. and Israeli position in the Middle East. I think we might well see a breakthrough in the Middle East, but it will not come because the U.S. and Israel desperately want to do the right thing and will be able to drag the recalcitrant Palestinians with them. On the contrary, it will come because the U.S. and Israel are no longer strong enough to give the finger to the rest of the world and its preferred solution. Israel and the U.S. are suddenly discovering the joys of the two state solution because U.S. foreign policy in the region is in flames, Israel’s situation is untenable in the long-term and its only friend is rapidly entering an era of greatly diminished global importance, and the only way for these two countries to pull their respective asses out of the fire is for them to give up their policies of military dictation and reconcile themselves to a two state solution on the 1967 borders, which happens to have been the position of international consensus for the rest of the world (including the Palestinians) for years. So I think it’s nuts to say the U.S. and Israel are reluctantly dragging the Palestinians to a deal, when the outlines of that deal have been PLO policy for 20 years, and it has been the side with military dominance – Israel - that has strived for all that time not to make the deal but to grab for itself something better by establishing unilaterally facts on the ground.
My second quibble with Geyer would be over the rather patronizing comment that the Palestinians can’t be expected to make ”great and mature moves”. The great and mature move was accepting that peace lies with two sovereign states on the 1967 borders. The Palestinians made that move 20 years ago. The U.S. government finally gave written acknowledgment to those borders in a paper formulated only two months ago as part of Condi Rice’s post-Annapolis shuttle efforts. And it was only in the last month that an Israeli PM – as he left office – managed to publicly accept that that is what it’s going to take to make peace. I think it’s very difficult for Americans to get away from the idea that the U.S. has been an honest broker between an Israel that has been striving to end the occupation, and the Palestinians who are just a bunch of terrorists. I think from the perspective of much of the rest of the world, however, Israel looks as if it has used the peace process as a diversion while it took by force what it could never get through negotiations, while the U.S. gave it diplomatic cover to do this, because it mistakenly believed its global hegemony and Israel’s regional hegemony would carry the day. It is only now, as the limits of military dominance become clear, that Israel and the U.S. are scrambling aboard the peace train, as they see that this is the only way for them to salvage any of their own strategic interests from a situation they once thought they dominated but which has rapidly gone pear-shaped.
So overall, I agree with bmaz and Geyer that there is a good prospect for a negotiated peace, but I think for different reasons - primarily, the dynamic is not that a “good” U.S. Administration will lead everyone else to do the right thing, but that a ”smart” U.S. Administration will finally identify a negotiated I/P settlement as being in its own national interest and will no longer obstruct or allow others to obstruct the two state solution on the 1967 borders.