President Clinton's three-day pulse check of the Wye peace agreement in Israel and its occupied territories seemed oriented more toward photo ops than tangible progress. On the one side, Palestinian President Yasir Arafat proudly greeted the landing of the first American president at Gaza International airport, a powerfully symbolic moment to the increasingly independent Palestinians. On the other, the domestic political crises of both Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cast a serious pall over the proceedings.
In fact, very little progress was made. Israel steadfastly refuses to pull back troops in the West Bank until Arafat clamps down on violence and abandons plans to announce Palestinian statehood in May.
"No one can seriously expect Israel to hand over another inch of territory unless and until such an unambiguous correction is made," Netanyahu told reporters Sunday after a meeting with Clinton. He further sniped at recent skirmishes in the West Bank and Palestinian statehood, saying, "Violence and peace are simply incompatible," and, "It is very difficult to make peace with a state that doesn't exist."
Meanwhile, Clinton's visit to Gaza on Monday had all the trappings of an official state visit. The president met with the Palestinian National Council, which voted to remove language from its charter calling for the destruction of Israel. "This moment would have been inconceivable a decade ago," Clinton told Palestinians. Arafat, giddy with delight, mused, "Your presence here made us relive the golden days of Palestine." Netanyahu also welcomed the vote, describing it as "a real change, a positive change."
A Tuesday meeting of Clinton, Arafat and Netanyahu at Erez Crossing, a border outpost in Gaza Strip, was less successful. The leaders met to discuss work of committees mandated under Wye to handle weapons confiscation and border crossings. But the trio had little, if anything, to say about their 90-minute chat. Clinton described it as "frank," but offered little in the way of tangible results, saying only, "I have achieved what I came here to achieve."
Salon spoke with Allan Solomonow, director of the Middle East peace program at the American Friends Service Committee, a nonprofit Quaker organization in San Francisco, about the implications of Clinton's visit. Solomonow is currently based in Israel.
At the close of Clinton's visit, where does the peace process stand?
Wye stands very little beyond where it was when it was signed. There's been a little progress, but that progress has been so slow, and so grudging in coming along, that it has continued to erode hope. Out of necessity, people are lowering expectations for the final-stage negotiations, which are what really count.
Have you observed any points of progress in Clinton's visit?
Not even the Palestinian National Council's vote to remove anti-Israel language from its charter?
This was progress in appealing to the Israeli people in terms of policy. Even though Netanyahu praised that vote, the last word today was that there was no certainty of the further promised Israeli troop redeployment Friday. The fact that that should not happen in the context of the vote having taken place is a setback.
How have the Israeli and Palestinian people reacted to Clinton's visit?
What has happened has been on a symbolic level. Palestinians are enormously excited by what Clinton said and how he said it. This is the first visit that Clinton has made to any Arab territory and he chose the Palestinians, and that has not been lost on them. He's communicated in a deeply personal way and has shown a stronger awareness and sensitivity to Palestinian concerns than has ever been expressed by any American official I know of, and that has buoyed the spirits of many Israelis and a large number of Palestinians.
Where it breaks down is that there is great cynicism on whether this, like so many other statements and opportunities, is going to have any tangible impact for Palestinian lives in the foreseeable future.
The Israelis were very supportive of Clinton's speech. It was a powerful statement of peace, reciprocity and mutuality and about the future of the two being kind together. Netanyahu is on his way out and there's strong feeling that he has failed to provide leadership that's likely to help Israel either economically or diplomatically.
The word I'm picking up in Jerusalem today is that Netanyahu will call for elections within the next 48 hours. If he calls the elections, he is in a little bit better electoral maneuvering position than he would be if he waited for the government to fall. If he dissolves the government, he can set the date for the new elections and pick a date that will be favorable to his Likud Party and its coalition members. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a popular general who might run for prime minister, can't run until 90 or 100 days have passed since his resignation from the army. Netanyahu could call early elections and disable him from running.
To what extent did Clinton's and Netanyahu's domestic leadership problems have an impact on the visit?
I don't know how to interpret the impeachment question, except to say that it has been a leading item in the news. I've just come back from Syria, Jordan and Egypt, where it's been the No. 1 item on television news.
It's simply widely assumed that Netanyahu is so deeply obligated to the right wing that he's not in the position to yield on the peace process even if he wanted to.
Was it significant that when Clinton addressed Palestinians, he emphasized that the impact of their decisions was more important to the Israeli people than their government?
I read this as Clinton doing what Netanyahu had done earlier when he appealed to the evangelical right wing in the United States. In this case, Clinton has gone directly to the people of Israel. I see this as an implied rebuke of Netanyahu.
How historically significant was Clinton's visit to Gaza?
The president specifically referred, in front of all of the Palestinians, to the pain and grief they had shared and actually specified the problems of separations from families, the restrictions of movement and very pointedly to settlement activity, land confiscation and house demolitions -- which are all ongoing policies of the Israeli government. For Clinton to make these observations after having met with Netanyahu the night before has not been lost on the Palestinians.
Should Clinton's Palestinian visit be perceived as an official state visit?
Not official. A lot of people have said that, but you just can't go that far. But it is a strong suggestion and it's one that is resonating with Israeli politicians. The Israeli government resisted Clinton landing in Gaza very fiercely for exactly that reason. They vetoed the idea of Clinton's speaking to the Palestine authority prior to speaking to the Israelis. Hence, Clinton gave the Israelis the courtesy of the first visit.
Other than troop redeployment, Palestinian statehood and West Bank violence, did any other issues surface?
Political prisoners have become a real issue. The Israelis don't want to release any prisoners who have blood on their hands, and the Palestinians clearly have no interest in the release of common criminals, which complicates their security problems. I would observe that there are a large number of political prisoners who are in between, people who have been detained but who haven't been charged or tried yet. Israeli security has given the go-ahead to Netanyahu to release these people. That would be a very good step if Netanyahu would go ahead and overrule the right and let them go. This has alienated some of the states who have been closest to Israel on the peace process -- there were protests in Jordan just a few days ago involving unions and professional leadership.
What are the next steps Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will take in this process?
Madeleine Albright, if you watch television, seems oddly divorced and distant. I got very little reading from what she said. The only step available right now is to bring a little more pressure on the Israelis to hold back on settlements, to go ahead with redeployment and to begin serious efforts at final-stage negotiations. That's probably the least likely thing the Israelis are going to do, because if elections are going to be called, there isn't going to be room for diplomatic leverage over the next three or four months. We're faced with a race between initiatives that may or may not come and increasing violence and skirmishes between the Palestinians and the Israelis.