11. Afterword: Clinton’s Legacy
Six months before his eight-year presidency ended in January 2001, President Bill Clinton finally confronted the issues that had for more than half a century been at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—a conflict he thought he knew well and had all but finally resolved. In actuality, final resolution of the conflict was not near, and it is arguable that Clinton did not in fact have a good understanding of the conflict and its origins, of the issues involved, or of the perspectives of both the Palestinians and Israel.
As Clinton left office, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process was near total collapse. In July 2000, Clinton had tried to bring the process to a conclusion by summoning Israeli and Palestinian leaders to a summit at Camp David to address the most critical issues of the conflict. After two weeks of intensive negotiations, the summit broke down over wide gaps on such issues as Israel’s demand that most Israeli settlements remain in place in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem; Palestinian insistence on gaining control over most of East Jerusalem; and the disposition of approximately three million Palestinian refugees whose original homes were in Israel. Two months later, in September 2000, a provocative visit to a site holy to both Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem by right-wing Israeli politician Ariel Sharon and the subsequent killing of seven unarmed Palestinian protesters by Israeli soldiers triggered a violent uprising by Palestinians throughout the occupied territories. The uprising, similar to the Palestinian intifada launched in 1987, was dubbed the al-Aqsa intifada, after the mosque where it began. Deep Palestinian frustrations—built up throughout seven years of a peace process that seemed to Palestinians destined to continue interminably with no progress and that appeared, far from ending the Israeli occupation, to be allowing Israel to consolidate and enhance
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its control—exploded in rock-throwing demonstrations by Palestinian teenagers and shooting by Palestinian police and members of an unofficial militia. Israel’s forceful response, including shooting of rock throwers by Israeli snipers and tank and helicopter-gunship attacks on Palestinian installations, brought the death toll among Palestinians to almost 350, many of them teenagers, by January 2001 when Clinton left office. Palestinians had killed approximately fifty Israelis, including soldiers involved in the exchange of gunfire and several civilians caught in terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalist groups or shot in roadside sniper attacks on highways in the occupied territories.
Six months after the Camp David summit, despite continued sporadic negotiations and a final intensive effort by Clinton to forge an agreement during his last month in office, the two sides still could not resolve remaining critical differences. Less than three weeks after Clinton left office, Israeli voters, profoundly disillusioned about the prospects for peace and angry that outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak had offered concessions to the Palestinians that they felt went too far, elected Sharon prime minister. An avowed opponent of the peace process that began with the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, Sharon declared during his election campaign that the Oslo process was dead and pledged that he would make no further territorial concessions to the Palestinians, promising to relinquish no part of Jerusalem or any territory in the West Bank and Gaza beyond the 41 percent already given over to full or partial Palestinian autonomy.
At the same time, the Palestinians were also in disarray. The leadership did not have control over dissident Palestinian organizations, particularly Islamic fundamentalist groups, and was not even fully able to control the Palestinian “street” and militia elements at the forefront of the intifada. The uprising, launched in part to protest corruption at high levels of the leadership, had begun to turn in on itself, attacking other Palestinians believed to be corrupt or to be collaborating with Israel. Although still committed to the peace process, the leadership was divided over the kind and extent of compromises Palestinians should make with Israel to reach a final peace agreement, and it clearly lacked anything like a vision or longterm strategy for achieving peace.
There is an irony in the fact that, although Clinton had established closer ties with Palestinians than any previous president, this was not enough to resolve hard substantive problems; lacking was an ability to understand and address issues of critical importance to Palestinians equally with the issues of most importance to Israel. Like U.S. policymakers for almost a century, Clinton’s basic frame of reference was Israel-centered,
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and despite his superficially friendly ties with Palestinian leaders, he continued until the end of his term to mediate the conflict from a perspective focused primarily on Israel’s concerns rather than equally on the concerns of both sides.
Clinton’s emphasis was always on the process of peace making rather than on the substance. He received Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat thirteen times in the White House, more than any other world leader; he dealt comfortably and familiarly with Palestinian negotiators; he was sequestered twice for extended negotiating sessions with Palestinians, during the nine days required to reach the Wye agreement in 1998 and the two weeks of the unsuccessful Camp David summit; he knew the geography of the West Bank and East Jerusalem well enough that his boast about being able to draw a map in his sleep was not a great exaggeration. But Clinton did not gain a deep understanding of the critical substantive issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians until the end of his presidency, when—too late—he released a set of proposals that marked the first time the administration had put forth a U.S. position on the major issues.
By the end of Clinton’s term, the United States had been deeply involved in the Arab-Israeli crisis for longer than the U.S.-Soviet Cold War had lasted. Fifty years on, virtually everyone—from media commentators, to the public at large, to policymakers themselves—has grown weary of it. Weariness gives rise to impatience, which in turn induces a tendency to pass over issues that to Americans may seem of little concern but that are of vital interest to the parties. In practical terms, what this meant was that, although Palestinians found Israel’s proposals at Camp David wholly inadequate to the creation of a viable Palestinian state on a contiguous land area and with what they regarded as a respectable capital, they came under intense pressure at all levels of public discourse in the United States to accept whatever was offered them because time was running short. Israel, on the other hand, was applauded for having moved away from its maximum position and, because few Americans had any depth of understanding of the issues and because both Israel and the United States were in a hurry, Palestinian insistence on probing the issues further until viability and stability in a state could be guaranteed was seen as intransigence. In a conflict often governed by perceptions rather than realities, real issues had been replaced with impatience.
Although he came near to achieving a dramatic breakthrough in Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, in the end President Clinton failed to break out
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of the same mind-set that had limited the thinking and the policy of most of his predecessors, a mind-set that had virtually always been focused primarily on Israel and its concerns rather than equally on the concerns and points of view of both Israel and the Palestinians. Clinton and his team of Middle East policymakers did not view themselves as leaning more toward one side in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and they have disputed any assertion that the administration’s focus was other than balanced. But it is arguably the case that Clinton’s failure to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion despite heavy concentration on the negotiating process throughout his last six months in office was attributable in great measure to the predominant Israeli focus of his administration’s policy approach and his failure to grasp and focus equally on the Palestinian perspective on the issues under negotiation. Under the guidance of Dennis Ross, who served in the State Department as special Middle East coordinator throughout Clinton’s two terms and was the principal architect of administration policy on Palestinian-Israeli issues, Clinton and his policymakers consistently allowed Israel to set the starting point, as well as the agenda and the pace, of peace negotiations.
Early in Clinton’s first term, for instance, the United States began to deemphasize U.S. reliance on UN Security Council Resolution 242 as the starting point for negotiations, undoubtedly largely because this was Israel’s preference. The Clinton administration’s de-emphasis of the resolution effectively inverted its original intent: whereas the resolution as written assumes the occupied territories to be Arab lands over which Israel might negotiate border adjustments, the new U.S. assumption with regard to the occupied territories in Palestine—the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem—came to be that these lands were now in their entirety either Israeli territories or disputed territories over which Palestinians must negotiate if they wanted sovereignty and an end to Israel’s large civilian and military presence. The line frequently put forth by administration spokesmen during and after the Camp David summit in July 2000, that neither side could expect to attain everything it wanted in negotiations, was clearly addressed to the Palestinians and carried the message that, contrary to previous expectations, Palestinians must come to the peace process expecting to bargain over the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, not to obtain their return.
The Clinton administration thus dramatically altered the starting point of the peace process. The desired Palestinian starting point is Resolution 242 according to the original interpretation. Palestinians feel they made all their major negotiating compromises up front, in 1988 when the PLO
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agreed to preconditions laid down by the United States for Palestinian participation in the peace process, including accepting Resolution 242 and recognizing Israel and its right to exist. In so doing, they relinquished any claim to those parts of Palestine lying within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Israel, on the other hand, does not fully recognize the applicability of Resolution 242 to the West Bank, Gaza, or East Jerusalem and has never accepted the notion that it must withdraw completely. To better guarantee its security and because of the deep emotional attachment many Israelis feel for the West Bank and particularly for Jerusalem, all Israeli governments have wanted to retain all or most of the settlements established in the West Bank and Gaza, and particularly all Israeli settlements established in East Jerusalem. By so clearly reinterpreting the meaning of Resolution 242, the Clinton administration has from the start removed the foundations from the Palestinian negotiating position and essentially adopted the Israeli starting point in negotiations.
By making Israeli security the overriding U.S. concern in negotiations and the principal goal of the peace process, Clinton administration negotiators also effectively gave Israel the right to set the negotiating agenda. In almost all instances, issues for negotiation were addressed according to Israel’s priorities. Guarantees of Israeli security took higher priority than, for example, any similar guarantees for the Palestinians or any effort to withdraw Israeli forces from the occupied territories or to end the construction of Israeli settlements in the territories. One of the clearest examples of this prioritization of Israeli security came in January 1997, when Ross and his team of negotiators mediated an agreement between the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority on a redeployment of Israeli forces in the city of Hebron. Israel had postponed this redeployment, originally scheduled to take place in March 1996, following several suicide bombings by Palestinian terrorists. In a letter of assurance to Netanyahu, Secretary of State Warren Christopher affirmed that “the key element” in the U.S. approach to peace “has always been a recognition of Israel’s security requirements,” adding that the United States was committed to helping Israel meet “the security needs that Israel identifies.” Simultaneously, a State Department spokesman released a statement pointing out that the timing and locations of three further Israeli redeployments in the West Bank called for in the Hebron agreement “are issues for implementation by Israel rather than issues for negotiation with the Palestinians.”
Except in rare circumstances, Ross and his team of negotiators refused to put forth U.S. positions on substantive issues or to push Israel to address
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core issues until it was ready, thus effectively allowing Israel to take the lead or not, as it saw fit. For example, the administration studiously failed to address, or to urge Israel and the Palestinians to address, any of the most contentious issues remaining to be resolved—the so-called finalstatus issues, which had been set aside at the beginning of the Oslo process in 1993 as the most difficult and critical issues—until Barak decided in mid-2000 that he was ready to deal with them, at which point Clinton convened the Camp David summit. The final-status issues involved (1) the extent of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza; (2) final delineation of the border between Israel and a Palestinian state; (3) disposition of the more than two hundred Israeli settlements and 200,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza; (4) the final status of East Jerusalem, where holy sites of great importance to Jews, Muslims, and Christians are situated, and where an additional 170,000 Israeli settlers resided in several Jewish neighborhoods interspersed with 200,000 Palestinian inhabitants; and (5) the disposition of about three million Palestinian refugees who fled, or were descended from those who fled, areas of Palestine in 1948 and demanded the right to return to their homes in Israel or to be compensated.
The timetable established by the Oslo accords called on the parties to begin addressing final-status issues “as soon as possible” during the designated interim phase, but no later than May 1997, and to reach a resolution of these issues—that is, a final peace agreement—by May 1999. Because of the Netanyahu government’s failure to complete the Israeli troop withdrawals called for during the interim phase and later the Barak government’s inability to meet the deadline, it was extended to September 2000. During this long period of delay, no serious discussion of any of the outstanding substantive issues took place. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators began final-status talks in late 1999, but these stuttered along sporadically and inconclusively, seldom addressing the issues at hand and periodically breaking up over disagreements on matters unrelated to the final issues. Throughout the seven years before the Camp David talks convened, U.S. negotiators did not urge the parties to turn to the task of addressing these most critical issues and, as far as is known, did not prepare position papers, explore the substantive intricacies of the issues, or probe for possible points of agreement and disagreement. In fact, it is probably safe to say that, although these are the most difficult, most strategically significant, most emotionally charged issues of the conflict, going to the heart of issues of national identity and national security for both sides, neither Israelis, Palestinians, nor Americans in any way prepared the
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ground for what was predictably the most difficult phase by far of the peace process.
In the meantime, while U.S. mediators allowed the peace process to stall, Israel continued to alter the situation on the ground in the very territories under negotiation by continuing substantial settlement construction, building an extensive road network connecting the settlements, and continuing to move Israeli civilians into the territories. In the seven years following the signing of the Oslo accords, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem increased by almost 50 percent, from approximately 250,000 to about 370,000, encouraged at least as much by the pro-peace Barak government as by the openly hardline, pro-settlement Netanyahu government. According to Amnesty International, the road network and the settlements in the West Bank—built on land confiscated from Palestinian individuals and Palestinian villages—separated Palestinian-controlled areas into more than two hundred separate, noncontiguous areas. In East Jerusalem between 1995 and 2000, Israel revoked the residency permits of more than three thousand Palestinian families, representing several thousand more individuals, and frequently demolished Palestinian homes built without permits—even as large numbers of Israelis were encouraged to settle and build homes in East Jerusalem.
Clinton administration officials said little about, and thus appeared to endorse, the increasing Israeli encroachment on the occupied territories represented by the expansion of settlements and their infrastructure. During Netanyahu’s three years as prime minister, when his government openly promoted settlement, U.S. officials frequently criticized Israel verbally, labeling the settlements “complicating factors” in the peace process, but they did not, as President George Bush had in 1991, take action against Israel by withholding or threatening to withhold aid. During the five years of Labor Party rule in Israel that coincided with Clinton’s time in office—years when the major part of settlement expansion occurred but was not broadly publicized—the United States said and did virtually nothing.
Permitting Israel to proceed with unimpeded large-scale settlement construction prejudiced negotiations by changing the character of areas supposed to be under negotiation and automatically tilted the peace process toward Israel. It created an atmosphere that made achieving an equitable peace agreement—based on assuring Israeli security but also on guaranteeing the Palestinians national viability in a state with a contiguous land area—virtually impossible. Clinton and his policymakers spoke
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frequently of the importance of creating a proper environment for peace and of the need to build confidence between the parties, but the inequity in the process created by Israel’s physical control of the land did not appear to be of concern to these officials.
Toward the end of Clinton’s term, he and other officials began to play on the theme that the Palestinians had impeded the peace process by “socializing hostility” and “socializing grievance” in their society. They lamented not only the Palestinian resort to violence with the September 2000 outbreak of the intifada, but that Palestinians had failed to remove anti-Israeli passages from school texts and continued to incite hatred in radio and television broadcasts, all violations of the Oslo accords. Ross used this theme in interviews with the press, and Clinton used it in a major policy address two weeks before leaving office. “Negotiations are not just about technical solutions,” Ross noted in one interview, “but about creating an environment.” Throughout the peace process, he said, Palestinians continued to “socialize hostility instead of preparing to make peace with their neighbors.” Clinton, also criticizing the Palestinians for tolerating violence, observed that “talks must be accompanied by acts—acts which show trust and partnership. For goodwill at the negotiating table cannot survive forever ill intent on the ground.”
Both men mentioned, along with Palestinian ill will, Israeli “indifference to the Palestinians” and the humiliating treatment Palestinians received at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank as obstacles to peace making. But in their discussion of the need to create an atmosphere of trust and goodwill, they put no emphasis on continued Israeli construction of settlements and roads, or the accompanying confiscation of Palestinian land, as violations of the spirit of the Oslo accords that not only undermined trust and soured the atmosphere for peace, but created actual physical impediments to a peace agreement.
Israel also set the pace and the agenda of the Camp David talks and of follow-up negotiations throughout the last six months of Clinton’s time in office. As noted, this first U.S. attempt to address the final-status issues did not occur until Israel was ready. Barak had taken office a year earlier asking the United States to maintain a distance from peace negotiations but soon came to realize that no progress could be made without some level of U.S. mediation, and by the summer of 2000 the looming September deadline for the conclusion of a final peace agreement, as well as difficulties in his own fractious government, pushed him to try for a final agreement. Clinton was eager to comply. He too was well aware of the approaching deadline and of the likelihood that Palestinians, increasingly
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discontented over the slow pace of the peace process, intended to bring matters to a head by unilaterally declaring a state in September if no agreement had been reached. He also, as was much publicized at the time, wanted to ensure a “legacy” for himself by being the president who finally, after more than fifty years, brought the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to a final peaceful conclusion.
The U.S. negotiating team allowed Israel to take the lead throughout the two weeks of the Camp David summit. At Barak’s specific request, U.S. negotiators did not confer in advance of the summit with other Arab leaders, who had a direct interest in many of the points of substance to be discussed, particularly Jerusalem, and who could have buttressed Arafat’s position. In addition, Palestinian negotiators have said that more than once during the meeting their Israeli counterparts informally presented Israeli proposals to the Palestinians, only to have U.S. negotiators later submit identical ideas as their own “bridging” proposals. Similarly, when in December 2000, one month before he left office, Clinton presented what he termed his own set of “parameters” for a final peace agreement, it was evident that his parameters were close to and may have been drawn from or coordinated with Barak’s.
The hallmark of Clinton administration policy throughout most of its years in office was its heavy emphasis on the process of peace making at the expense of substance. Administration policymakers, led particularly by Ross, believed that U.S. involvement in substantive issues should be minimal, that the two sides should be allowed to proceed at their own pace, arguing substance without outside intervention, which the Clinton team believed tended to prejudice negotiations. Although this approach purported to adopt a position of strict neutrality, in fact in a situation in which Israel was the vastly stronger side, with physical control over all the territory under negotiation, and the Palestinian side had no way other than verbal argument to advance its position, a hands-off approach by the United States as mediator actually heavily favored Israel, giving it a free hand to negotiate or refuse to negotiate according to its own perceived needs and allowing it the freedom to take whatever steps it deemed necessary for its own security interests, even if these should impede future negotiations.
From a policymaking perspective, when the primary emphasis is on process, the mediator has little need to know points of substance and therefore little incentive to learn them. In the drive to further process, to
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bring the parties together at the negotiating table in an ongoing negotiation, substance can actually be obscured. In the case of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the singular concentration of U.S. policymakers on process tended to obscure from their field of vision, or cause them to ignore, the substantive grievances that primarily motivated the Palestinians. Policymakers seemed to have little awareness until well after the al-Aqsa in tifada began of what Israel’s continued occupation meant for the daily lives of Palestinians, of what Palestinians wanted out of negotiations, or of why, after seven years of continued Israeli occupation following Oslo, Palestinians felt the peace process had proved inadequate. U.S. officials acknowledged to the press after the intifada began that they had failed to grasp the depth of frustration simmering among the Palestinian population; policymakers had been lulled into thinking all was well on the ground by witnessing the personal bonds forged between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. This stands out as a clear indication of how focusing on process (the relationships among negotiators) can blind even those deeply involved in negotiations to substance (the realities of life under Israeli occupation). Palestinians themselves have observed that the U.S. emphasis on process tended to create a “false sense of normalcy”—the parties were meeting and this alone was taken as progress—when in reality Palestinian discontent was growing because no progress was being made on the ground and substantive Palestinian concerns were “constantly deflected in order to maintain talks.”
The inherent inequity in the Clinton administration’s approach to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process was its failure to recognize that its singular focus on guaranteeing total security for Israel necessarily meant insecurity for the Palestinians. Clinton himself and his policymaking team, presumably starting from a lifetime of internalizing the strongly pro-Israeli mind-set prevalent among Americans, operated from the basic notion that Israeli security fears are deep and visceral and that, in the uniquely symbiotic relationship between the United States and Israel, the primary U.S. task was to overcome those fears. As a result, policymakers tended not to be able to see what Palestinian security needs were and why Palestinians felt the peace process had fallen short in guaranteeing these needs. A mediator who emphasizes the security concerns of one side while ignoring or dismissing as inconsequential the security concerns of the other side is by definition not an equitable mediator.
Clinton himself appears to have had a genuine empathy for both Palestinians
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and Israelis—for what he once termed the “tremendous pain” Palestinians experience living under occupation, as well as for the past suffering of Jews and the “profound desire of Israelis to live without fear.” He had an uncanny ability to relate to others and to their problems, at least in superficial ways; although his professed ability “to feel your pain” was often the subject of derision and political satire, he clearly did have a unique facility for conveying a sense of empathy for others’ troubles. But ultimately his emotional identity with Israel was far stronger than his feeling for Palestinians and their concerns. Clinton’s understanding of the Palestinians and what the occupation meant for their daily lives appeared fleeting and selective, expressed only at occasional moments when he was directly confronted with these realities, as when he traveled to Gaza in December 1998 and met personally with individual Palestinians. It is notable, in fact, that although many Palestinians hailed Clinton after his Gaza speech as the first president who truly understood the Palestinians’ plight, he never reiterated the sentiments expressed at Gaza, despite frequently indicating understanding for Israeli security fears.
The perspective of Clinton’s aides appears to have been even more oriented toward Israel’s interests. Ross and the other principal members of the peace team, Aaron David Miller and Martin Indyk, were all personally and emotionally committed to Israel. All had lived in Israel before entering government service; they often vacationed there. Miller and Indyk once told an interviewer that their personal and their professional involvement in the peace process were so intertwined that they could not determine where one left off and the other began. Indyk has said that the defining moment in his life came while he was living in Israel during the 1973 war when he decided to dedicate himself to helping resolve the conflict and concluded that U.S. involvement was critical both to ending the conflict and “for Israel’s defense.” Ross has said that being Jewish increased his interest in the Arab-Israeli problem.
These men may not have consciously approached policymaking from an Israeli perspective. They felt, in fact, that the common Semitic origins of Jews and Arabs gave them a special bond with Arabs and what one referred to as “a basic easiness [with Arabs] on a social, cultural level.” Miller had a reputation for recognizing the Arab perspective and even for tilting toward the Arabs, and his extensive writings indicate an unusual degree of understanding for Palestinian and Arab concerns. But if these men were of Palestinian descent with an acknowledged emotional commitment to the Palestinian cause and expressed a desire to work for Palestinian defense, they would be universally labeled as biased and excluded
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from a policymaking role. Their primary concern for Israel’s security automatically gave them a skewed perspective. (During a speech to members of San Francisco’s Jewish community in early 1992, when he was a policymaker in the Bush administration, Ross reportedly boasted of what the Bush administration had accomplished for Israel’s benefit and noted specifically that the Arabs had been unable to impose a freeze on Israeli settlement construction as a precondition for peace talks.) When at the end of the Clinton years Ross was questioned by an interviewer about Palestinian assertions that he and his colleagues had emotional ties to Israel, he did not deny the ties but responded that he did not think the issue was relevant.
Uri Savir, the chief Israeli negotiator in the secret talks that led to the 1993 Oslo accords, wrote in his book The Process,
These negotiations, over the powers Israel had exercised [in the occupied territories] for a whole generation, opened an entire world before me. Over the years Israelis had cultivated a self-serving myth that ours was an “enlightened occupation.” I knew this was a contradiction in terms, but I did not know—and I think few other Israelis did—how thoroughly we had invaded the lives of our Palestinian neighbors. We repressed this knowledge as we may have been the first conquerors in history who felt themselves conquered. Our self-image as a humane society and history’s eternal victim, as well as Arab antagonism, blinded us to what was going on in the territories. What I discovered in the [talks] was that a West Bank Palestinian could not build, work, study, purchase land, grow produce, start a business, take a walk at night, enter Israel, go abroad, or visit his family in Gaza or Jordan without a permit from us. … The whole of the population had, at some time, been grossly humiliated by us.
In early 2001, when more than seven years of the peace process that Savir helped start had still failed to alter most of these restrictions on Palestinian life under Israeli occupation, Savir concluded that Israelis were still living in “self-delusion and almost total blindness” where Palestinian needs were concerned. Palestinian hopes for freedom had been disappointed, he said. The intifada broke out because of the “yawning gap” between Palestinian expectations and “the reality of continued Israeli control over their freedom of movement and freedom to work.” Almost simultaneously, the London Economist, expressing a viewpoint widespread throughout Europe, observed that Israelis, disillusioned and bitter
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over the Palestinian resort to violence, “are blinkered from any point of view but their own; they are blind to a Palestinian perspective.”
If the majority of Israelis were living in “almost total blindness” to Palestinian concerns, the blinkering of Americans—including the general public, media pundits, and policymakers—to the Palestinian perspective was even more pervasive. Reaction throughout the United States to the collapse of the Camp David talks and the subsequent outbreak of the Palestinian uprising showed not only an outpouring of sympathy for Israel but a level of venom toward the Palestinians that was notable for its intensity and its breadth. The new intifada in particular appeared to have uncovered a vein of deep animosity toward the Palestinians among Americans. Despite decades of gradual improvement in the Palestinian image, the anti-Palestinian atmosphere seemed in the wake of the uprising to have returned to the virulence of the 1960s and 1970s, when Palestinians were widely viewed as terrorists bent on Israel’s destruction and having no legitimate national aspirations.
The principal theme of U.S. media commentary in the months following the outbreak of the intifada was that the uprising showed the Palestinians in general and Arafat in particular in their true colors: as after all never having wanted real peace with Israel, as intransigent and completely unwilling to make concessions to Israel, as in fact unable to accept Jews in their midst and therefore incapable of adjusting to the existence of a Jewish state, and as ultimately determined to see Israel’s demise. The tenor of commentary varied according to the political leanings of the commentator or editorial writer; conservative columnists such as the Washington Post‘s George Will and Charles Krauthammer professed to see a threat to Israel’s existence from the Palestinians, while liberal columnists such as Thomas Friedman of the New York Times downplayed the danger to Israel but scorned the Palestinians for allegedly using street violence to gain Israeli concessions that they could not gain at the negotiating table and for being unwilling themselves to offer compromises to Israel. But no matter the political inclination of the commentator, castigation of the Palestinians was almost universal.
Even columnists usually open to the Palestinian viewpoint and former public officials who have been involved in the peace process spoke out against Arafat and the Palestinians for disappointing Israel’s expectations and needlessly causing bloodshed. One normally sympathetic columnist portrayed Arafat as cynically encouraging violence to wring more concessions from Israel. Another, more strident, deemed the Palestinians “unpredictable,
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unreliable partners in peace” who had “shredded” any hopes of their good faith. Arafat, another columnist railed, had “mindlessly” exploited an Israeli provocation to incite the intifada because he believed there was “a need for more bloodshed to prove that the Palestinian state was born in blood and fire.” Yet another columnist questioned the very “nature” and “culture” of the Palestinians; he compared Palestinian and Israeli deaths in the uprising—which at that point stood in a ratio of seven to one—and concluded that the killing of Palestinians was more justifiable because most of those killed by Israelis “knew they ran [a] risk when they picked up a rock and hurled it at an armed soldier,” whereas the Palestinians had killed not only soldiers but innocent Israeli civilians, including children, traveling the roads of the West Bank and Gaza. One former official charged that Israeli concessions were “never enough to satisfy the Palestinians,” and another held forth on the “philosophical gulf between the way Israel and America define peace and the way the Palestinians do.” Palestinians, he alleged, regard Israel as an “intrusion” in Arab territory and regard the territorial concessions they have had to make as “amputations of their cultural and theological patrimony.”
A consistent theme ran through commentary from all political sides during the first several months of the uprising: the Palestinians had disillusioned Israelis by their resort to violence; they were poor peace partners for Israel, Israel could no longer be sure of their readiness to live in peace, and, most commonly, Israelis felt insecure in their daily lives. Although the complaints were understandable from the Israeli standpoint, in the remarkably large outpouring of U.S. commentary, few pundits—and none of those cited above—gave thought to another perspective: to whether Israelis had disillusioned Palestinians by prolonging the occupation seven years beyond the Oslo accords; to whether Israel had proved to be a poor peace partner for the Palestinians; to whether Palestinians could be sure of Israeli readiness to live in peace given Israel’s increasing encroachment into the occupied territories; to whether Palestinians felt insecure in their daily lives because of such daily occurrences as harassment at Israeli checkpoints, house demolitions, continued land confiscations, water rationing, and occasional shootings and other depredations committed by Israeli settlers. The widespread assumption was that the Oslo process had been a test of whether the Palestinians could give Israel a secure peace—a test the Palestinians had failed—and that Arafat had, as one columnist wrote, an “obligation to build Israeli confidence.” Apparently none of these commentators believed that the tests and obligations should rest
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equally with both sides—that Oslo was also a test of whether Israel could give the Palestinians a secure peace, or that Israeli leaders had an obligation to build Palestinian confidence.
Virtually no prominent U.S. columnist or editorial writer and very few op-ed commentators have shown any depth of understanding of the Palestinian perspective on the conflict. In commentary following the collapse of the Camp David summit and later in the wake of the intifada,there was little real understanding of the issues involved or the grievances that motivated the Palestinians, and little indication of any effort to understand. In the Israeli-oriented frame of reference prevalent in the United States, attention automatically focused during and after Camp David on the concessions Israel offered, and because these were major in a relative sense—compared to what Israel had offered before—the general tendency was to ignore whether they were significant in an absolute sense. Few focused on what for Palestinians were the critical shortcomings of the Camp David package: the continued presence of most Israeli settlements and roads; the resulting lack of contiguity in the land area of the future Palestinian state; Israel’s offer to turn over to Palestinian control not half of Jerusalem, as many commentators claimed, but considerably less than half of the city’s eastern half; and the failure to address the Palestinian refugee question.
The point in this context is not necessarily to contend that Israel offered too much or too little, or to say that the Palestinians demanded too much or too little, but simply to observe that by directing all criticism for the failure to reach agreement at the Palestinians, U.S. commentators—and indeed U.S. policymakers who adopted the same line—failed to treat Palestinian demands as of equal weight and legitimacy with Israel’s. By wholeheartedly buying into the prevalent Israeli view that Israel had made concession after concession while the Palestinians compromised nothing, Americans demonstrated their inability to view the conflict, or to mediate it, from a neutral vantage point.
Weariness with the conflict after so many decades, along with the widespread belief that it was about to be resolved when violence erupted, also constituted a major reason for the outpouring of deep hostility toward the Palestinians. Because the misapprehension about where negotiations stood when the Camp David summit collapsed was so widespread, and the belief so pervasive that Palestinians rejected an Israeli offer of unprecedented generosity, the weariness with the conflict naturally manifested itself as exasperation and anger with the Palestinians. Largely unaware of what Palestinians considered intolerable living conditions in the occupied territories before Camp David and of the explosive buildup of Palestinian
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frustrations over the slow pace of the peace process, media commentators and the general public alike were taken by surprise when the intifada broke out and, unable to see the conflict from the Palestinian perspective, attributed the violence not to Palestinian desperation, but to Palestinian malevolence.
Finally, the most basic underlying reason for the upsurge in hostility toward Palestinians was the prevalence of a mind-set that tended to see the Israeli but not the Palestinian point of view and that regarded Israelis as civilized and essentially like Americans but saw Palestinians and Arabs in general as barbaric and at bottom uncivilized. The columnist who wondered about the “nature” of all Palestinians because some killed innocent Israeli civilians, without questioning the nature of all Israelis because some killed innocent Palestinian civilians, represented a large number of Americans who viewed the conflict and the peace process from a frame of reference oriented only toward Israel and Israel’s interests. Similarly, the common assumption that Palestinians acted out of raw hatred rather than from legitimate grievances—an assumption well expressed, for instance, in several headlines in Time magazine during the early months of the in tifada that repeatedly attributed the uprising to hatred—came from a frame of reference that ignored the Palestinian point of view.
With the Palestinian-Israeli conflict more than with most foreign policy issues, perceptions are highly emotional and ingrained and, for this reason, changes in attitudes tend to be slow and superficial. The most common images in the minds of Americans, principally of Arabs as threatening and of Israel as always endangered, remain close to the surface and, even if suppressed, can be called up quickly when Palestinians oppose Israel. Although Palestinians won considerable sympathy in the United States during the first intifada, from 1987 to 1993, they were not able to recapture much of that sympathy during the al-Aqsa intifada because they appeared to be more militant and far more unreasonable; whereas in the first uprising Palestinians were armed only with stones against Israeli soldiers and were clearly asking for freedom and an end to the occupation, in the second uprising they used arms along with stones and appeared to be interrupting a peace process that most Americans thought was about to bring an end to the occupation. Because of the almost automatic and unquestioned nature of the Israeli focus that pervades most of U.S. public discourse, all the old images of Palestinians as a marauding horde bent on destroying Israel clicked in.
Prominent columnists who write in the major newspapers, appear on television talk shows, and often put their views forth in books, as well as
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other commentators who carry the authority of having once served in high government positions, are critical opinion-molders in the United States, standing at the center of public discourse, where they can and do influence public thinking about Israelis and Palestinians, while also reflecting that thinking upward to, and influencing, policymakers. The rote assumptions and misperceptions that form much of U.S. public thinking on this issue have always ultimately reemerged as policy, and this situation was no different during most of the Clinton administration, when it was clear that Clinton himself and his principal policymakers operated on the basis of the assumption, long a part of the prevailing frame of reference in the United States, that Israel’s interests were of paramount concern to U.S. policymakers. Marc Ellis, an American Jewish political scholar, described this phenomenon in both cultural and political terms. In a speech after the collapse of the Camp David talks and before the intifada, he observed that progressive Israelis and American Jews normally open to the Palestinian perspective nonetheless approached the conflict from an inequitable point of view. The “subtext” of their arguments, he said, “is that Palestinian history and destiny is secondary to Jewish history and destiny. Any political empowerment of Palestinians must be limited and monitored by Israel.” This has been, and remains, the fundamental assumption, and the fundamental inequity, of all U.S. administrations and of all U.S. peace making efforts.
Clinton himself and his policymaking team spoke frequently in the final months of his presidency of how close Israel and the Palestinians were in their negotiating positions following the Camp David summit. Indeed, the two sides were closer than they had been to reaching a final agreement; Barak had, as he and his U.S. supporters boasted, offered more concessions on Jerusalem and on Israeli settlements than previous Israeli prime ministers. But the substantive gap remaining between the two sides was still wide in absolute terms. The parties were “closer” to a final agreement only because final issues had never before been addressed; Barak’s concessions were significant not because they conceded a great deal, but because Israel had simply not offered concessions on Jerusalem or settlements before.
It would perhaps be more accurate to judge progress made in the peace process during Clinton’s years in office by measuring actual progress on the ground against a scale of expectations. At the beginning of the Oslo process, the general expectation—based on UN Resolution 242 and on previously enunciated U.S. policy—was that a final peace agreement
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would result in the withdrawal of Israeli military and civilians from all but a small portion of the West Bank and Gaza, as well as some reasonable sharing of sovereignty between Israel and the Palestinians in East Jerusalem. The “parameters” offered by Clinton at the end of his term may in fact provide the foundations of a formula for just such an agreement in the future. But they came too late. More than seven years into a peace process originally intended to produce results relatively quickly and easily, virtually none of Oslo’s expectations had been met. Israel had withdrawn from some areas in the West Bank and Gaza, giving Palestinians full autonomy in Palestinian cities, but these areas included only 17 percent of the West Bank. After seven years, Israel retained military control or dual military and civilian control over 83 percent of the West Bank and approximately one-quarter of Gaza. East Jerusalem remained under Israel’s total control. Increased numbers of Israeli settlers and settlements and an extensive new Israeli road network criss-crossed the territories, and Israeli checkpoints stopped the free travel of Palestinians. The security of 370,000 Israeli settlers continued to take precedence over the security and quality of life of almost three million Palestinians.
In the end, the Clinton administration failed to bring the peace process to a successful conclusion because of this imbalance. Because ultimately the Clinton administration’s principal focus was on satisfying Israel’s security needs rather than addressing the needs of both sides, the time for achieving a stable agreement finally ran out.