10. The Pictures in Our Heads
Political philosopher Walter Lippmann often commented that we are all captives of the pictures in our heads. People make mistakes, he once wrote, “because an important part of human behavior is reaction to the pictures in their heads.” Human behavior takes place in “a pseudo-environment,” a representation of what we suppose to be, but not what actually is, the reality. “This man-made, this cultural environment, which has its being in the minds of men, is interposed between man … and the external reality. … Men react to their ideas and images, to their pictures and notions of the world, treating these pictures as if they were the reality.”
We all function on the basis of what one scholar calls “perceptual predispositions,” fitting the realities that confront us into our own set of images. Policymakers are no different. Confronted with the need to draw conclusions and make policy on the basis of ambiguous evidence, they tend to fit data into a preexisting framework of beliefs, establishing a paradigm that “sets limits on what explanations ‘make sense,’ … helps determine what phenomena are important, … [and] marks out areas to be ignored.” The paradigm will lead scientists and policymakers alike to “reject flatly evidence that is fundamentally out of line with the expectations that it generates. An experiment that produces such evidence will be ignored by the scientist who carries it out. If he submits it to a journal the editors will reject it. Even if it is printed, most of his colleagues will pay no heed even if they cannot find any flaws in it.”
Perceptual predispositions have governed policymaking on Palestinian-Israeli issues from the beginning, from the earliest days of the Palestine problem, when British and U.S. policymakers, perceptually predisposed to view Arabs as backward and unready for self-governance and to see Palestine as a biblical land peopled with Jews and Christians, were able to block
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out and totally override the interests of an overwhelmingly majority Arab population in order to further the Zionist enterprise. Perceptual predispositions function today as well, for despite the fact that Palestinians are now widely recognized to have a national existence and national a spirations, U.S. policymakers are still, in their focus on Israel’s interests and perspective, able to a great extent to block out the Palestinian viewpoint. For instance, although the United States still considers itself a neutral “honest broker” between the two sides, Israel’s security still takes precedence in U.S. calculations of what constitute fair and reasonable peace terms, and Israel’s readiness to negotiate still determines U.S. readiness to mediate. The question of Palestinian security has rarely entered U.S. calculations, and Palestinian readiness to negotiate has rarely pushed the United States to press forward with a mediation effort.
Washington Post editor and columnist Stephen Rosenfeld observed in 1997 that “Palestine is always going to be, at best, a struggling little country perceived first, by most Americans, through an Israeli lens.” This succinct description of the situation undoubtedly also accurately predicts the future state of public perceptions and of policymaking. But it does not accurately state the magnitude of the problem, for it is reasonable to suggest that an approach to the conflict that did not always look through an Israeli lens—that was less focused on one side, more cognizant of the concerns and, at the beginning, of the very existence of the other side, and less dismissive of the true origins of the conflict—might have, and indeed probably would have, led to are solution years and perhaps decades earlier. Many wars and much bloodshed resulted because Israel denied and few United States policymakers ever understood the real reasons the conflict arose in the first place.
Clinton administration policy on the Palestinian-Israeli situation gives clear evidence of the truth of the old adage “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” for it demonstrates both how dramatically the policymaking frame of reference has changed and how much it has stayed the same. In the wake of the 1991 Madrid conference and the Oslo Declaration of Principles, signed by Israel and the PLO in September 1993, Palestinians be came more “respectable” in many senses in the United States. PLO leader Yasir Arafat is now received at the White House, he shakes hands with presidents and secretaries of state, and he is referred to as “President Arafat” in many circles, although not by U.S. officials. The Palestinian perspective is sought in most news programs, talk shows, and other media presentations on the
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Middle East. Palestinians are considered full participants in the peace process and to a great extent are treated diplomatically like a sovereign nation.
Criticism of Israeli policies is also much more widely acceptable; many former policymakers and numerous media commentators have been openly critical of the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the basis that they have foreclosed negotiating options for the Palestinians and left them with no stake in the peace process. In December 1996, eight former high-ranking U.S. officials addressed a letter to Netanyahu stating their belief that a lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict must ensure “equity for all sides” and criticizing Israel for taking “unilateral actions, such as the expansion of settlements, [that are] counterproductive to the goal of a negotiated solution and, if carried forward, could halt progress made by the peace process over the last two decades. Such a tragic result would threaten the security of Israel, the Palestinians, friendly Arab states, and undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East.” The letter was signed by former secretaries of state James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger, and Cyrus Vance; former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski, Frank Carlucci, and Brent Scowcroft; and former Middle East negotiators Richard Fairbanks and Robert Strauss. Former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, and George Shultz did not sign the letter.
Nonetheless, despite statements such as this, the Palestinians are still not fully accepted as legitimate contenders for public and policymaker attention, and in many subtle ways the national mind-set remains closed to the Palestinian viewpoint. The Clinton administration—from President Bill Clinton, who as a Southern Baptist feels the biblical affinity for Israel that large numbers of his predecessors felt; to Vice President Al Gore, whose earlier record in the U.S. Senate placed him in the ranks of Israel’s staunchest congressional supporters; to special Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross, who brought his Israeli perspective from the Bush administration; to Martin Indyk, who moved from directing the Israeli-oriented Washington Institute for Near East Policy to holding several key posts under Clinton, first becoming director of Middle East affairs on the National Security Council staff, then ambassador to Israel, then assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs—has in most ways operated according to the old Israel-centered frame of reference. Like the team recruited into the Bush administration from the Washington Institute, the Clinton administration Middle East team generally has an Israeli Labor Party orientation. Administration officials were openly chagrined when Labor Prime Minister Shimon Peres was defeated at the polls in May 1996 by the Likud’s
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Benjamin Netanyahu, but the restoration of Likud rule in the end has had little impact on U.S. policymaking.
The peace process had moved forward slowly under the Labor governments of Yitzhak Rabin and, after his assassination in November 1995, of Shimon Peres, but under Netanyahu it caromed from crisis to crisis, stuttering to a nearly total collapse. These crises included most notably: Israel’s opening in September 1996 of an archeological tunnel running along the al-Aqsa mosque compound in East Jerusalem, which led to Palestinian demonstrations and clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian police; the failure until January 1997 to reach agreement on the redeployment of Israeli troops in the West Bank town of Hebron; Israel’s expansion of settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, including particularly construction of settlements and takeover of homes in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem in mid-1997; several 1997 bombings in Jerusalem by Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist terrorists; and Israel’s delay in implementing further withdrawals from the West Bank, as called for initially by the Oslo agreement and spelled out further in the Wye agreement of October 1998.
Each of these crises necessitated some U.S. intervention, and the Wye agreement involved intensive negotiation by Clinton himself over a nineday period. But in the final analysis the United States took few concrete steps to move the peace process along, demonstrating a clear reluctance to exert pressure on or to force an open confrontation with Netanyahu and ultimately always taking refuge in the old notion that it was powerless to move until the parties themselves were ready. With a Likud government in power in Israel, this requirement automatically meant virtual deadlock. Long experience with Likud governments had previously demonstrated that Israel’s right wing did not want progress in the form of territorial concessions and indeed was fundamentally opposed to the peace process. Throughout the process, for a variety of reasons ranging from the Ross team’s longstanding advocacy of a hands-off approach to peacemaking, to Clinton’s entanglement in scandal, to his aversion to confrontation of any kind and particularly with Israel and its congressional supporters, Clinton and his team allowed Netanyahu to play a dominating role. As New York Times diplomatic correspondent Steven Erlanger observed, in mid-1998, in order to avoid a politically damaging showdown with Netanyahu and in hope of ultimately forging some sort of acceptable withdrawal arrangement, Clinton seemed “to be willing to take a degree of humiliation—quite an extraordinary degree, in my view”—from Netanyahu.
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Throughout its first term, which more or less coincided with Labor Party rule in Israel, as well as during its second term, when the Likud governed in Israel, the Clinton administration set policies that in small ways and large automatically gave Israel an advantage in peace negotiations. The basic policy of doing virtually nothing until Israel was ready favored the Israeli position in the first instance. Almost from the beginning, moreover, the United States changed the ground rules in subtle ways that favored Israel. In June 1993, for instance, only a few months into Clinton’s first term, Ross authored a statement of principles, released under Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s name, that in a key way reframed the objectives of the peace process. The statement subtly but fundamentally altered the U.S. position on the ultimate disposition of the occupied West Bank and Gaza, undermining the concept of territory for peace, which had always been a bedrock of U.S. policy. Heretofore, the essence of the territory-for-peace concept embodied in UN Resolution 242 had been that the territories were ultimately Arab and that all should be returned to Arab control, allowing for “minor border adjustments,” in return for Arab agreement to recognize and live in peace with Israel. In the 1993 statement of principles, however, the idea of exchanging territory for peace was not mentioned, and the entire question of the extent of territory to be relinquished by Israel—even the ultimate sovereignty over those territories included during the interim stage in the Palestinian self-governing area—was left to future permanent status talks. Thus, even in the interim self-governing areas, Palestinian jurisdiction was not assured and was considered to be temporary and functional rather than territorial.
The United States thereby came to consider the territories to be “disputed”—not, as previously, “occupied.” Whereas longstanding U.S. policy had always been that Israel’s control of these territories was temporary, it now adopted the Israeli position that Israel had the right to negotiate the retention of some or all of the territory. Under these new terms of reference, what had always previously been understood to mean “full territory for full peace” had become instead, as far as the United States was concerned, “some territory for full peace.” Ironically, this U.S. statement of principles went further toward accommodating Israel than Israel’s Labor government itself was demanding in the secret Oslo negotiations then going on with the PLO, and the Oslo Declaration of Principles signed three months after the United States put forth its guidelines did not carry the connotation that those areas turned over to Palestinian jurisdiction in the interim stage might be taken back as a result of final-status negotiations.
Ross had formulated his own basis for the notion that the occupied territories
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were open to negotiation almost a decade before, in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy paper that he authored in 1985 recommending Middle East policy for Ronald Reagan’s second term. Speaking of the demands the United States should make of the Soviet Union, he observed that the Soviets should show their good faith by, among other things, recognizing Israeli security requirements by “going beyond UN Resolution 242 and accepting the need for ‘defensible borders,’ meaning the acceptance [by the Soviets and the Arabs] of the principle of territorial compromise, rather than total withdrawal.” The concept of “territorial compromise” had heretofore implied compromise by Israel in return for full peace from the Arabs—not, as Ross indicated here, territorial compromise by the Arabs in order to guarantee Israeli security.
The Clinton administration also changed the language of negotiations and altered the ground rules in other areas. Israeli settlements, for instance, which the Carter administration had called “illegal” and the Reagan administration had termed “obstacles to peace,” were labeled mere “complicating factors” by the Clinton administration. The administration seemed to take the existence of the Oslo accords and the fact that Israel and the PLO had signed an agreement leaving such issues as Israeli settlements and the status of Jerusalem until final-status negotiations as a reason to refrain completely from stating its own view on any of these key issues. Thus, the United States refused during the UN session following the signing of the Oslo accords to condemn or debate Israel’s settlement activity because it was “unproductive to debate the legalities of the issue.” Also in 1993, it failed for the first time in over forty years to support the UN General Assembly’s annual reaffirmation of Resolution 194, adopted originally in 1949, which expressed support for the right of Palestinians who fled Palestine in 1948 to return to their homes as long as they were willing to live in peace with Israel. The United States had voted for the original resolution and forty subsequentreiteration so fit, but refused to do so in 1993. In 1994, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright suggested in a letter to General Assembly members that, in light of the recent peace agreements, the General Assembly “consolidate,” “improve,” or “eliminate” certain resolutions judged by the United States to be contentious.
The body of UN resolutions, including particularly the 1970 General Assembly resolution extending the universal right of self-determination to Palestinians, constituted the basis of what international support the Palestinians enjoyed, symbolic and ineffectual though it was. Eliminating these resolutions, as the United States advocated, would have undermined those few aspects of the ground rules that helped the Palestinians, amounting to
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what a Jordanian journalist called “an attempted assault on the past and theft of the collective memory.” By stepping back itself from voicing an opinion on such things as Israel’s occupation practices and urging the international community to do the same, the United States was in fact placing its support behind Israel. It was attempting to create a supposedly level playing field by removing the Palestinians’ international support in a situation in which Israel enjoyed the tangible advantages—a state, actual physical control of the land, and clear military superiority—and the United States itself underwrote that advantage.
Indeed, it is an irony that the mere fact of a peace agreement between Israel and the PLO, an agreement that had altered the political and diplomatic frame of reference in the United States overnight by making the Palestinians acceptable, had also made it possible to continue ignoring the Palestinian perspective on the conflict. It became so widely assumed, particularly while the Labor government was in power, that the peace process was on track—that the Palestinians had the recognition they wanted and Israel had given all that was necessary—that few noticed or cared about events occurring on the ground that might undermine further progress. The peace process provided a kind of shield that in some ways made it increasingly difficult for the Palestinians to put their views forward.
Israeli writer Meron Benvenisti observed this phenomenon early on. Even as the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian talks were proceeding in Washington, before Oslo, Benvenisti noted that Prime Minister Rabin was cracking down on Palestinians in the occupied territories. Life became harsher in the West Bank and Gaza, he wrote, “in a way unseen by eyes blinded by the bilateral talks.” Violence had been raised to a new level, Benvenisti observed, by Israel’s mass deportations of Palestinians, by its closure of egress from the occupied territories so that Palestinians could not enter Israel to work, by its increased demolition of Palestinian houses. Construction of Israeli settlement sincreased. “Yet this quantum leap did not,” hesaid, “disturbthe sleep of the Israeli consensus [or of the U.S. consensus]. When the Palestinians came to U.S. Secretary of State Christopher and presented their protests about the situation in the territories, he responded: ‘How long will you go on complaining? The time has come to start talking business!’ In other words, talk to me in the jargon I know and don’t bother me with the street talk of reality.”
The jargon the United States knows is to a great extent that of the old frame of reference, and the partial peace that now exists has made it far more difficult to change that jargon. The general attitude in the United States about the ultimate fate of Jerusalem is a case in point. Many U.S. supporters
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of Israel, particularly in Congress, have long urged the United States to declare officially its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But until the Oslo process began, more moderate heads, recognizing that moving the embassy would constitute a major change in policy and aware of the serious political repercussions such a move would have in the Arab world, had always prevailed. In October 1995, however, by an overwhelming majority (95–5 in the Senate and 374–37 in the House), Congress passed a bill mandating the move to Jerusalem by May 1999. The bill, which automatically became law when Clinton neither vetoed nor signed it, gives the president the power to delay the move for periods of six months if a delay is deemed necessary to protect U.S. national security interests.
Had the peace process not been moving forward at the time, this proposal might not have come up at all or been voted on so overwhelmingly by Congress. But because peace appeared to so many people to be so nearly accomplished, it seemed no longer necessary to withhold approval for the embassy move. Vast numbers of the U.S. public believed in any case that Jerusalem belonged and should always belong to Israel. New York Times columnist William Safire spoke for a far broader sampling of public opinion than his politically conservative views normally represented when he wrote in mid-1996 that “plain justice and the new realism” demanded that the United States recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Assuming that Jerusalem was Israel’s capital because Israel had declared it to be—and assuming that “every realist” knew this would always be the case—Safire expressed annoyance that anyone could think otherwise.
The Clinton administration did virtually nothing to counter the widely held viewpoint expressed by Safire. It remained official policy that the final status of Jerusalem was open to negotiation, and administration spokespeople criticized the Netanyahu government for its repeated efforts to prejudge the negotiations by building in Palestinian neighborhoods. But the administration essentially acquiesced in Netanyahu’s aggressive assertion of Israeli control. Its criticism, if voiced at all, lacked force; it took no action to curtail aid to Israel and in fact increased aid by offsetting almost all the penalty that would have been deducted from the $10 billion in housing loan guarantees; and when it had an opportunity to send a clear and meaningful signal of disagreement with Israel’s policies—as with the Jerusalem embassy bill and several UN resolutions in 1997 criticizing Israel’s increased settlement construction in East Jerusalem, all of which the United States vetoed—it instead sent clear signals of U.S. acquiescence and even approval. The United States also did not speak out against, and thus seemed
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to condone, Israel’s well-publicized practice since 1996 of revoking the residency permits of many Palestinians living in East Jerusalem.
The rote assumption embodied in Safire’s column, in the opinions of most conservative commentators, and in Congress’s embassy vote that all Jerusalem is and should be Israeli because Israel said so; the refusal to debate the legalities of the issue or accept the basis for past U.S. policy; the refusal to take account of the Palestinian viewpoint or of Palestinian history in the city; the assertion of the Jewish right to control all Jerusalem and to live in any part of Palestine without recognizing a comparable Palestinian right—these have all become a widely accepted part of the national mind-set.
Many liberal commentators speak out against this body of assumptions, but their voice has been muffled. The resurgence of the conservative wing of the Republican Party in the United States in the mid-1990s brought with it a new trend in the community of U.S. supporters of Israel—a trend that increased pressures on the Clinton administration to go along with the hard-line policies of Israel’s Likud government. Decisive Republican victories in congressional elections in 1994 and 1996 brought back to the fore many of the neoconservative opinion molders and intellectuals of the Reagan era, most of whom aligned themselves with Israel’s Likud Party and its policies and opposed the peace process. The conservative resurgence gave a strong boost to the think tanks and editorial offices where the neoconservatives hold sway and again gave them a key voice in setting the parameters of public and congressional discourse on Palestinian-Israeli issues. Think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation became major forums for opponents of the peace process in the mid-and late 1990s, and conservative commentators who supported Israel’s right wing—particularly A. M. Rosenthal and William Safire of the New York Times and the Washington Post‘s George Will and Charles Krauthammer—maintained a steady drumbeat of opposition to efforts to further the peace process. Even before Netanyahu’s electoral victory in 1996, a pro-Likud, anti-Labor, and anti-peace lobby had begun to emerge in Washington. While still in the opposition, Netanyahu and other conservative Israelis frequently lobbied Congress against Labor’s peace policies and against such measures as giving financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, and many of the most politically conservative U.S. Jewish groups joined in a coalition to promote the Likud line. The lobbying coalition had already gained a foothold with Congress when Netanyahu’s election gave it further impetus.
Calling this union of right-wing Israelis and conservative U.S. lobbyists
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“peacebreakers” rather than peacemakers, one scholar, political scientist Ian Lustick, has noted that their tactic has been to look for the worst about the Oslo peace process—not to look for the possibilities or seize opportunities for peace and cooperation but to seek out legalistic evidence of violations. On the issue of the revision of the Palestinian Charter, for instance, although the PNC voted in April 1996, in accordance with the Oslo accords, to rescind those articles in the charter that called for Israel’s destruction, Netanyahu and his conservative U.S. allies pressed for, and secured as part of the 1998 Wye agreement, a requirement that the PNC formally reaffirm the decision to rescind. (This was accomplished in December 1998 at a special PNC session attended by Clinton.) The “peacebreakers,” says Lustick, chose to treat the Oslo accords “not as a basis for an evolving partnership, but as an array of legalistic and public relations weapons that can free Israel of its commitments, prevent further transfers of territory to Palestinian control, and delegitimize Arafat and the idea of a Palestinian state.”
The upsurge in anti-Palestinian, pro-Likud sentiment among conservative opinion molders in the United States reaches and helps shape the thinking of a wide audience. The major think tanks essentially set the tone and much of the content of Republican political thought. Conservative, pro-Likud columnists such as Will and Krauthammer are widely syndicated and reach an audience throughout the country. Other media vehicles that espouse the same rightist line, such as the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page, have huge national circulations.
Radio talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, who claims to have an audience of regular listeners numbering in the millions, also frequently treat their audiences to anti-Palestinian, pro-Israeli diatribes. In April 1997, at the height of the crisis sparked by Israel’s construction of the 6,500-unit Har Homa settlement in the Jabal Abu Ghunaym section of East Jerusalem, Limbaugh delivered a lengthy monologue on his understanding of the Middle East situation. He had visited Israel four years earlier and met with several Israeli leaders—including Ariel Sharon, who gave him a threehour tour of the West Bank—and only two months previously had been invited by Netanyahu to meet with him in New York during a U.S. trip. As a result of these meetings, Limbaugh, who sympathized with Netanyahu as a fellow conservative, considered himself qualified to educate his audience about the true situation in Israel. Asserting during his radio monologue that Arafat’s “ultimate objective … has never changed. It’s the elimination of Israel. There are no two ways about it,” Limbaugh summed up his view of the peace process as follows: “How in the world you think you can have peace with people who swear to exterminate you is beyond me. And so
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a peace that seeks to accommodate those enemies is an illusion.” Netanyahu, he said, understood this, although the United States did not.
In a similar vein, right-wing pro-Israeli organizations such as the Zionist Organization of America, the U.S. extension of the Israeli parties Herut and Likud, have waged concerted campaigns in Congress and in the media to portray the Palestinians as untrustworthy for failing to live up to the precise legal terms of the Oslo agreement. Other right-wing organizations like FLAME (Facts and Logic about the Middle East), which enjoys tax-exempt status in the United States as an educational institution, place political ads in major mainstream magazines such as the New Yorker denouncing the peace process under the guise of giving readers the true facts. Referring to “the so-called ‘peace process,’” FLAME ads assert, “Only Israel should determine whether its national rights and its security requirements are being honored and fulfilled. Only then, and not before, should it be prepared to continue its negotiations with the Palestinian Arabs.” The assumption is that only Israel has national rights and security requirements.
The significance of this trend is not only that this sentiment constitutes a major political voice but that it has a major and direct impact on policymaking. With a president basically uninterested in foreign affairs in the first instance, enmeshed in scandal, and disinclined toward confrontation with his domestic political foes, the Clinton administration has probably been even less inclined than most of its predecessors to confront Israel’s most vocal supporters by pressuring Israel for greater movement in the peace process. In fact, the administration frequently undermined the strength of its own bargaining position by seeming to reward Netanyahu when he was at his most uncompromising—as when, for instance, in January 1998, the U.S. delivered to Israel the first F-15 combat aircraft only hours before what was being advertised as a hard-hitting meeting between Clinton and Netanyahu over the extent of proposed Israeli West Bank withdrawals. As occurred during the early years of the Bush administration, when the United States was failing to push Shamir’s Likud government, opponents of the Likud in Israel again began to plead with the United States to exert meaningful pressure on Netanyahu.
The intensive burst of energy expended to bring about the 1998 Wye agreement stands as an exception to Clinton’s general reluctance to exert pressure on Israel, and it is a real irony that, despite his usual reticence, his pressure at Wye probably ultimately led to the breakdown of Netanyahu’s governing coalition by forcing a right-wing Israeli government to undermine its own ideological underpinnings by implementing territorial
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withdrawals. In the particular case of the Wye agreement, Clinton, facing a congressional election in November 1998 and the danger of impeachment, needed a diplomatic success for his own political position more than he feared antagonizing Israel’s supporters. In the end, Clinton achieved the Wye agreement—which simply provided for the implementation of steps originally scheduled to be carried out a year earlier under the Oslo time table—more for Clinton himself than for the sake of the peace process.
Whereas in the Bush administration both the president and Baker counterbalanced their advisers’ Israeli orientation, in the Clinton administration everyone in key positions viewed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict primarily from an Israeli perspective and was emotionally connected to Israel in some way. As a result and because Clinton and most others at high levels of the administration, including Christopher and Albright, Christopher’s successor as secretary of state, rarely took an interest in the details of Palestinian-Israeli policy, as Bush and Baker both did, Ross and his team generally had a free hand to formulate policy. Although Clinton himself and his policymakers came to despise Netanyahu and his government, and the verbal fireworks were occasionally intense, the fundamental emotional attachment to Israel and its security needs and the tendency to view the conflict through an Israeli lens always principally determined Clinton administration policy.
From the beginning of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict almost a century ago, Palestinians have been particularly ineffective in advancing their own case and attempting to insert themselves and their cause into the framework that forms public thought and policy in the United States, although it is doubtful that greater organizational and public-relations skills would have altered the course of events significantly.
Palestinian political disorganization, the lack of a national political structure, and the lack of any public-relations effort in the years leading up to Israel’s creation, as well as during the two decades in which Palestinians languished in shock and political quiescence following their dispossession and dispersal, have been noted. When Palestinians finally began to bring themselves to international attention in the late 1960s with a series of international terrorist incidents, the Palestinian leadership failed to put forward to the world a political face that anyone could relate to, a face that adequately explained the reasons for the terrorism, the underlying grievances that Palestinians were attempting to enunciate, and the aspirations Palestinians were pursuing. For the next two decades, Arafat dodged and weaved,
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promising moderation and then withdrawing it, offering secret initiatives but failing to pursue them forcefully, tantalizing U.S. policymakers with overtures but so seldom offering anything definite and tangible that it was relatively easy for them to dismiss him.
When the Palestinian people forced the issue and brought their desperate situation under Israeli occupation to the attention of the world and of their own leadership with the intifada in the late 1980s, the PLO leadership again failed to press the Palestinian case adequately. Although in the wake of the uprising, the PLO did issue a message of political conciliation and coexistence with Israel, with its initiative of November 1988, Palestinian spokespeople did virtually nothing to follow up on this conciliatory move. The PLO took no steps to capitalize on the considerable public sympathy for the Palestinians aroused by the intifada, to emphasize the historical significance of PLO concessions, to reiterate its readiness for coexistence with Israel, to combat Israel’s portrayal of Palestinian concessions as a sham, or to fight continued skepticism in the United States. The PLO then severely tarnished its own and its people’s image by supporting Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990–1991, without being able to explain adequately the sense of hopelessness about the peace process that had led the Palestinians to throw in their lot with Iraq.
Edward Said has complained about the Palestinians’ “historical inability as a people to focus on a set of national goals, and singlemindedly to pursue them with methods and principles that are adequate to these goals.” Whereas the Zionists and later the Israelis have always had an unchanging guiding principle and have always been able to formulate concrete steps to accomplish their goals, Said writes, “the Arab technique has always been to make very large general assertions, and then hope that the concrete details will somehow work out later.” Israel has always had the plans, he says; “we have the wish.” Similarly with the pro-Israel and the Arab American lobbies in the United States, one has had the plans and the other—no match for the pro-Israel lobby in size, unity, skill, dedication, or persistence—has had only the wish, with little clear and cohesive sense of its goals.
These problems and shortcomings have unquestionably had an impact on how well the Palestinian message and perspective have penetrated the consciousness of Americans. A more competent Palestinian leadership could certainly have done things differently. A more skilled propaganda arm might have competed on a more nearly even level with the pro-Zionist and later the pro-Israel lobby. Ultimately, however, it is doubtful that Palestinians would have received a much better hearing in the United States, that their message would have penetrated significantly better, even
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had these problems not existed. Even if their political leadership had been better able over the decades to articulate its case credibly or organize the Palestinian people or lay out a coherent strategy—even with a charismatic leader who captured the imagination of Americans as, for instance, Anwar Sadat did—it is unlikely that perceptions would have been changed appreciably. For, ultimately, Americans had no place in their mind-set for Palestinians and what they had to say about their grievances and aspirations. The U.S. frame of reference on the Palestine situation had been essentially anti-Arab and “Palestinian-less” before it was ever Zionist-or Israelcentered; the advent of Zionism as a factor and the great affection for Israel in the United States in effect set the Palestinians’ already predetermined fate in concrete. U.S. presidents from Wilson on believed the Zionists had a right to Palestine; that the United States was solemnly committed to assist in, or at least not to impede, this endeavor; and that Palestinians were a primitive people with no rights, who constituted nothing so much as an obstacle to the Zionist enterprise. Charisma and a more engaging leader than the Mufti of Jerusalem in the early days would not have been enough to overcome this mind-set.
Each U.S. president since Israel’s creation has put his own imprint on policy toward the Palestinians, but one principal factor has influenced the policy of each of them: the affinity each president has or has not felt for Israel has had a direct and significant impact on how the Palestinians have been dealt with. Each has been influenced to one degree or another by a national mind-set that is focused principally on Israel. Those presidents with the greatest emotional bond to Israel, particularly Johnson and Reagan, have been the most inclined to ignore or to try to ignore the Palestinians. But every president has brought to Middle East policymaking a perspective centered to a greater or lesser degree on Israel. Eisenhower, who dealt harshly with Israel, nonetheless never took the Palestinian viewpoint into consideration. Bush clearly had no emotional feeling for Israel, and he saw the need to involve the Palestinians in the peace process if a resolution were to be achieved, but neither he nor most of the foreign-policy team under him understood what the Palestinian point of view was. Even Carter never thought to challenge the assumption that had prevailed for thirty years when he took office that establishment of a Palestinian state was out of the question.
The strictures that bound the thinking even of someone as open to the Palestinian viewpoint as Carter, as well as the serious domestic political problems he confronted when attempting to bring Palestinian concerns into the negotiating process, give a clear indication of how difficult it was
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and probably will always be to alter the fundamental aspects of the frame of reference. What Bush was able to accomplish in pressing Israel to accept Palestinian participation in negotiations demonstrates on the one hand what is possible if policymakers step outside the usual framework. On the other hand, Clinton’s quick return to the old ways and the old mind-set—and particularly the fact that, faced like Bush with a hard-line Likud government in Israel, he did not confront the Israelis as Bush did but acquiesced in policies that undermined the peace process, much as Reagan did—indicates that in the end little has changed. Each president and each administration’s policymakers have ultimately been influenced by the prevailing mind-set on the issue throughout the United States, and Americans remain bonded to Israel. The pictures in the nation’s heads are basically Israeli, the jargon the country knows is basically Israeli, Israel remains part of the “being” of the United States. However individual each president’s style may have been, the frame of reference has more or less been a constant.
Setting the parameters of public and policymaker discourse on Palestinian-Israeli issues has always been far more than a matter of manipulation by a powerful pro-Israel lobby, more than a matter of the dictates of a controlling press, more than a matter of government or congressional manipulation. These pressures have helped to intensify and perpetuate the differences in the perceptions of Palestinians and Israelis, but it is far too simplistic to conclude that the U.S. frame of reference has been molded through a kind of conspiracy of interest groups. The public wisdom on the Palestine situation that has evolved over the decades, however inaccurate, however distorted or one-sided, has become rote, a set of blinders that permit only brief side glances into the Palestinian viewpoint. New information and new perceptions barely penetrate this set of assumptions. The lore thus constructed takes on a life of its own. It is rarely challenged, and challenges are rarely believed. In this situation, only minimal lobby pressure and media manipulation are necessary to sustain it.
More Americans know more about Israel—its history, its politics, its foreign relations, its society—than about any country in the world. In the mind of Americans, Israel is something apart. Scholar Bernard Reich has explained this special identity as emanating from a sense that Israel is “a like-image state whose survival is crucial to the ideological prospering of the United States. This perspective goes beyond the more general concern for all similar states, to one associated particularly with Israel.” Reich’s view may be somewhat overdrawn, but it is not distorted by much, and, however imprecise, it describes a mind-set that Palestinians will obviously
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never penetrate. Palestinian scholar Camille Mansour has made a similar observation.
The [U.S.] pro-Israeli predisposition [is] … a stubborn and enduring given that “precedes” any consideration of interest, any concern with cost or damage. … Cultural identification causes people to perceive that those with whom they identify are also contributing to their own strategy. By taking part in the “being” of American society, Israel also participates in its integrity and its defense. Does one think spontaneously of costs when the problem is to defend one’s being, one’s space, one’s border? … Since [U.S. political leaders] cannot decide rationally whether supporting Israel against its neighbors promotes or undermines American interests, they follow their spontaneous pro-Israeli sentiments and the persuasive force of the lobby.
The cultural identification of the United States with Israel simply by its nature excludes the Palestinians. Palestinians will never be part of the being of the United States and will never be perceived as contributing to U.S. strategy and defense. However perceptions of the Palestinians may change, their viewpoint will never become an integral part of the frame of reference.
In the final analysis, the key question arising from these realities is why the existence of a mind-set or frame of reference that is more or less locked into the Israeli perspective matters in the overall scheme of U.S. foreign relations. The short answer is that by its attempt since the late 1940s to avoid intervening in the conflict (an avoidance that Israelis but not Arabs have desired), by its failure to recall the root of the conflict, by its general failure to take account of Palestinian concerns, the United States has prolonged the Arab-Israeli and specifically the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Sociologist Gershon Shafir has written that ideological convictions in Israel prolonged the conflict by leaving Palestinian interests unfulfilled and invisible and rendering even the expression of these interests illegitimate. Until Israel’s young revisionist historians and the “critical sociologists” such as Shafir himself and Baruch Kimmerling came along in the late 1980s, most Israelis lived with the sense of security that came from “ideological and mythical certainties,” that arose from the apparently certain knowledge that Israel’s cause was and had always been entirely just and its behavior above reproach. These myths and ideological convictions required blinders that actually produced views of a far more sinister nature, Shafir maintains; in the end,
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they “championed behavior that brought on repeated conflict and, by justifying the mistrust of peace, offered no way out.”
Shafir’s analysis of Israeli thinking and behavior applies as well to U.S. thinking, for the United States, following Israel’s lead, has essentially taken refuge over the decades in the comfort of the status quo. By blinding policymakers to the Palestinian side of the conflict and the Arab side in general, the convictions and assumptions of the status quo prevented them not only from taking serious steps to resolve the conflict but even from recognizing when the conflict was ready to boil over.
Those policymakers and analysts who advocate that the United States maintain a hands-off or a low-key posture with regard to Palestinian-and Arab-Israeli issues, who maintain that only the parties themselves can achieve peace, point to the fact that the Oslo Declaration of Principles was negotiated without the assistance of the United States but came about when Israel and the Palestinians themselves decided to move ahead, negotiating directly and using the Norwegians not as mediators but as facilitators to arrange a venue for the secret talks, to carry messages, and in some of the final stages to clarify points and assist in devising wording. But Israelis and Palestinians came together for these direct, unmediated talks in 1992 and 1993 for a combination of reasons that had not existed previously and probably will not again—reasons that in the end bring no credit to U.S. policymaking.
First, Israel under a Labor government was ready to talk and make concessions and was pushed by a young government minister, Yossi Beilin, and two unknown Israeli academics interested in taking new risks and exploring new avenues. This circumstance is not likely to be repeated under a Likud government avowedly opposed to any peace arrangement involving Israeli territorial concessions. Second, Arafat was eager to probe the Oslo channel precisely because he and the PLO had been excluded from the main peace talks by U.S. design and he was fearful of being sidelined by the West Bankers engaged in the Washington bilateral talks. Had U.S. policymakers not been so determined to bypass the PLO and seek an alternative leadership for the Palestinians among the West Bank negotiators, similar progress would undoubtedly have been possible in the principal negotiating venue in Washington. Finally, the United States itself undermined the official negotiations during the last year of the Bush administration and the first few months of Clinton’s presidency by playing the role of spectator, failing to intervene with positive proposals of its own when Israelis and Palestinians were unable to bridge the gap between them and seeming to take Israel’s part on the essentials.
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U.S. policymakers did know about the Oslo channel, but, apparently unable to believe that anything could be accomplished without U.S. participation and perhaps believing, because of their own anti-PLO views, that Israel would never negotiate with the PLO, they missed the significance of the secret talks. In late 1992, the Norwegians and Beilin each asked U.S. officials for their views on the possibility of negotiating with the PLO and in both instances were given dismissive answers: it was premature, or Arafat was an unreliable negotiating partner. Again in January 1993, the Norwegians gave the new Clinton administration a general report on the secret talks, without elaborating on details, and conveyed a request from the PLO negotiators that the Americans engage in secret direct talks with the PLO, and again the United States showed no interest. Several times throughout 1993, including in July and August, only weeks before the Declaration of Principles was signed, the Norwegians informed the United States, including Secretary of State Christopher, in general terms about the secret channel, but the United States never followed up on offers to use the channel as a means of overcoming impasses in the Washington talks and did not appear to consider the Oslo talks a serious venture. One U.S. official flatly turned down an offer to join the secret talks, apparently considering them too vague and exploratory, even after becoming aware that Foreign Minister Peres had become involved.
The Oslo talks ultimately succeeded in large measure because the Israelis, particularly Beilin and his mentor Peres, began to take the PLO seriously, finally coming to realize that only the PLO could deliver. The Washington talks were stagnating, they realized, because the PLO had been shut out and Palestinian negotiators would not make decisions independent of their leadership.
Harold Saunders has recounted a conversation he had with an Egyptian official in early 1974 during one of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s shuttle missions following the October 1973 war. The Egyptian lamented that the United States had not been decisively involved in the search for peace between the 1967 and the 1973 wars. When Saunders observed that the United States was certainly involved now, the Egyptian replied, “Yes, but it took a war to get you here.” Unfortunately, this has been the case more than once throughout the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and it is not unreasonable to argue that many wars, perhaps all wars, could have been avoided over the last half century if the United States had better understood and paid better heed to the concerns of both sides in the conflict. The possibility that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the Persian Gulf war that followed could have been avoided if an active peace process that addressed
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Palestinian concerns had been in train has been noted. Similarly, the intifada and its accompanying bloodshed might have been avoided if Palestinians had felt any reason to hope that the United States would press for serious negotiations and would not continue to underwrite Israel’s occupation.
It is possible to continue going back in time with this line of thought. What might have been the possibility of avoiding Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon if the United States had not encouraged Israel to believe it had Washington’s support for its harsh anti-Palestinian policies in the occupied territories and indeed for its ill-concealed intention of permanently absorbing the territories into Israel? Going back to 1967 and before, what might have been the likelihood of avoiding this conflict if the United States had recognized that the Palestinian problem was the core of the conflict and had treated this issue from the beginning in its national and political dimension rather than only as a humanitarian issue of refugees? By dealing only with the broader Arab-Israeli issues arising from the events of 1948—that is, by adopting Israel’s self-interested denial of the Palestinian issue’s relevance and by allowing the Arab states’ self-interested focus on their own territorial issues to divert it from the Palestinian question—the United States missed the point and tried to treat the symptoms while never attempting to cure the disease.
What might have been accomplished in a positive sense toward reaching a real peace, one wonders, if the United States had ever thought to examine the Palestinian perspective on the conflict? In retrospect, it is remarkable to recall that the United States did not talk to a Palestinian about political issues for forty years after 1948 and, for over a decade after 1975, actually forbade itself from talking to the Palestinians’ political representative. One has to ask how slippery and hard to pin down Arafat might have been had any U.S. official ever addressed him, how many opportunities he would have missed if the United States had presented him with any, how much more forthcoming he and the PLO might have been had they received encouragement from the United States. There are no definitive answers to these questions, but the possibilities are intriguing.
During the secret Oslo negotiations, it quickly became clear to both the Palestinians and the Israelis that the personal relationships formed by the mere fact that individuals from the two sides were talking seriously to each other gave this negotiating track its momentum. Attitudes on both sides changed dramatically because each side realized that the other was legitimizing it simply by talking. One of the Israeli negotiators, Uri Savir, has indicated that he realized early in the negotiations that simply by talking
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to the PLO, Israel was legitimizing Arafat and that doing so would produce a change in the Palestinians’ own refusal to legitimize Israel. The confidence and security each side gained in the knowledge that it was being accepted and taken seriously enabled both to make concessions. For instance, a British journalist who studied the negotiations has observed that after one crisis when the talks seemed to be in danger “the bonds already created had been strengthened; there were new understandings and some honest talking” and the crisis was overcome because there was “a shared will to succeed even when the outlook was at its most bleak.” It is tantalizing to imagine the results if this process had been initiated years earlier.
In the end, the singular U.S. focus on Israel’s perspective in the conflict renders the United States unable to perform the role it has always set for itself as ultimate mediator and peacemaker. If the United States wants to side with Israel, policymakers, Congress, and the people may justly decide to do so; neutrality has never been necessary for successful foreign policy. But the United States cannot act as an impartial mediator or honest broker if it approaches the mediation with one eye closed. From the beginning of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the positions of both sides have been reasonable from their individual perspectives: Israel’s denial of the Palestinians’ existence as a nation was a reasonable position for Israelis fighting to maintain their national integrity; the Palestinians’ denial of Israel’s right to exist was a reasonable position for a dispossessed people struggling to restore their national integrity. The failure of the United States, if it expected to put itself forward as a truly neutral and effective mediator, has always lain in so thoroughly adopting the Israeli perspective that it does not recognize the Palestinian point of view. The issue is not fairness, by any one’s definition, or justice or morality. In purely practical terms, the United States cannot be a peacemaker if it continues to underwrite measures, such as Israeli settlements and Israeli land expropriations, that prevent peace from evolving. It cannot honestly maintain that its own intervention is impossible because the parties are not ready to make peace when U.S. support has a direct bearing on Israel’s readiness to make concessions. It cannot expect peace in the Middle East if it supports only one side in a conflict that cries out for reconciliation.