Desperately seeking a legacy

President Clinton has little time left to improve his standing in history. Could foreign affairs, especially a negotiated peace in the Middle East, offer him a chance for salvation?

By Nina Donaghy

Published November 24, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

President Clinton is a man badly in need of a legacy. With only 14 months left in his presidency, he needs to pull off something spectacular soon if he is to succeed in pushing Monica Lewinsky out of the first paragraph of his obituary.

Accordingly, President Clinton has decided to focus his energy on foreign policy, perhaps the only remaining arena where he has any hope of achieving statesman-like stature by century's end. He has just returned from a whistle-stop European tour culminating in a rousing speech in Kosovo. Earlier this month, he delivered a major speech at Georgetown University outlining his ambitious agenda for the remainder of his presidency.

Last year, throughout the impeachment crisis, Clinton appeared off-balance and confused. But whenever one of the unending stream of foreign crises handed him chances to escape his domestic nightmare, he suddenly seemed energized and confident.

During his Georgetown speech, Clinton zeroed in on his top remaining priority, the Middle East peace process: "We have about 100 days to meet the ambitious timetable the leaders of the Middle East have set for themselves to achieve a framework agreement," he said, referring to the proposed trilateral February summit and a September final settlement. Indeed, the Middle East is arguably the only international area in which Clinton has proved an effective mediator, and thus has real hope of being granted a degree of personal credit by historians.

Until recently, an Arab-Israeli settlement seemed impossible. But in this region, run by compelling and distinct personalities, symbolic gestures, both grand and small, count for a lot. Earlier this month, Clinton was in Oslo, ostensibly paying his respects to assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, yet also keeping the increasingly cooperative relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority fresh.

A highlight of the Oslo meeting came in the extraordinary image of Yasser Arafat gallantly kissing the hand of Leah Rabin, the slain leader's widow, who in turn urged the leaders present to continue the moral and political imperative of her late husband.

Going forward, veteran mediator Dennis Ross will engage in shuttle diplomacy over the next few months and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will strive to keep the Syrians onboard, as the Clinton administration tries to maintain the momentum toward peace. Congress has also finally granted funds to aid the implementation of the Wye accord, brokered during the darkest and most hopeless days of the impeachment, which should help.

Therefore, Clinton may be justified in feeling that he is still playing a vital role in the negotiations -- and to hope that the next trilateral get-together on the White House lawn will afford him a good enough photo-op to at least guarantee a shot at a Nobel Peace Prize, as well as a permanent hero's welcome anywhere east of Morocco.

Several emotionally charged issues remain undiscussed to date, however -- and although new Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority leader Arafat are making good on their promises to maintain a positive atmosphere, Barak has made it clear that he wants the U.S. to scale back its role from architect to facilitator for any future deals. Clinton's goal to be seen as a great statesman hangs in the balance.

Jon Alterman, of the Institute of Peace, has just returned from Oslo and casts doubt upon Clinton's promises of a speedy resolution: "It is fanciful to think all negotiations will be completed within a year -- negotiations will continue for years, if not decades. It may, however, be possible to establish a framework for future negotiations by next September. The only useful role that Clinton can play is a 'closer.' While some in the region may wish that he did nothing but pursue Arab-Israeli peace for the next 12 months, that's simply not going to happen."

The U.S. clearly has an important role to play, however, at the very least as a future witness to the proceedings and a cheerleader for progress.

Dan Mariaschin, director of B'nai B'rith's Center for Public Policy recalls how President Jimmy Carter's pioneering of closed-door, intimate negotiations was instrumental in changing the direction of Middle East diplomacy: "The Egyptian-Israeli peace might have come about on its own eventually, brokered behind the scenes by people like the late King Hassan of Morocco, who was a pragmatist and a realist. So, too with the current Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"However, outside help from the U.S. in particular was vital," Mariaschin continues. "All the summits, mini-summits and working sessions were helped by invitations to Washington and a steady stream of messages, phone calls and shuttle diplomacy to keep the process on the straight and narrow. Indispensible? Maybe."

Certainly, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin emerged from two weeks at Camp David with a new understanding. Six months later, when they returned to the United States to sign the treaty under which Israel agreed to hand back to Egypt the Sinai Peninsula, held for 12 years since the Six Day War.

A bloody decade followed, as Israel invaded Lebanon to drive out the Hezbollah militia threatening its northern borders, and the Intifada (the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip) gathered new momentum.

But Clinton could not resist the challenge of bringing the two seemingly intractable factions to the table. His efforts to create an atmosphere where a peace process could become a realistic possibility resulted in the dramatic, albeit awkward and ultimately staged, handshake between Rabin and Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993 -- where they signed a Declaration of Principles.

A similar tableau followed a year later, when Clinton looked on as King Hussein of Jordan and Rabin engaged in a similar handshake.

Further hopes of dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were dashed by the assassination of Rabin, however, as well as by the continued terrorist attacks on Israeli military and civilian targets by the hard-line Palestinian Hamas, continued tension with Lebanon, and Syria's demand for the return of the strategically vital Golan Heights.

Arafat at last realized the need for U.S. support and launched a charm offensive on Washington, cutting a more sympathetic figure than ever before. During the painfully long negotiations at the Wye River Plantation in October 1998, brokered effectively by a weary Clinton who was once again seeking to escape his domestic problems, it appeared that then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was threatening to wreck the negotiations and leave the stalemated peace process again without hope or direction (at one point he literally left his packed bags in the hallway).

It was only the dramatic intervention of Jordan's cancer-stricken King Hussein, summoned from his sickbed at the Mayo Clinic, that resuscitated the talks. Hussein's eloquence and dignity made the Wye accord an agreement that addressed such key issues as Israeli-occupied territory in Lebanon, the language of the PLO charter (which called for the destruction of the state of Israel), the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, safe passage for Palestinians traveling between Gaza and the West Bank and -- Netanyahu's main sticking point -- the future security of Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

Two new figures have also emerged this year to bring fresh momentum to the negotiating table. Hussein's successor, King Abdullah, has held dear his father's legacy in maintaining Jordan's unique place among the Arab states, balancing variously antagonistic relationships with his neighbors. He has proved himself unafraid to act, and surprised some by making it clear that Hamas will not be allowed to disrupt the peace process from its base in Jordan.

Israel's Barak is the other new player. A career soldier who has spent his entire adult life in uniform, and a former member of Israel's most elite commando unit, he was always known as a brilliant tactician and ruthlessly courageous commander -- a man who would turn off his radio rather than honor an order to retreat.

He has been described as Rabin's torch-bearer, yet although he was elected on the strength of his commitment to the peace process, his mandate is not as clear
as Rabin's. He obviously respects the present Israeli consensus in favor for peace, but will not tolerate what he perceives to be any risk to the country's security.

As soon as he had formed his government, Barak met with Abdullah and Arafat and spent several days in Washington, where he cemented good relations between the Middle East neighbors, but asked Clinton to let Israel set its own standards for peace. The talks have yet to address the future status of Jerusalem, the question of a self-determining Palestinian state (which Barak has not ruled out) and the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights.

Alterman, of the Institute of Peace, describes Barak is a formidable leader who knows full well the value of maintaining good relations with Washington, even as he tries to convince Clinton to reduce his role: "There will be no heroes in this drama and people on all sides are fatigued and they think their adversaries will get a better deal than they will. Barak seems unwilling to delegate much authority, and that could pose a problem as negotiations get under way," says Alterman.

Clinton is unlikely to agree to relegate himself to a back-seat role. As his Georgetown speech indicated, he has set himself what he considers "an ambitious timetable" and it would appear the other parties involved share a similar sense of urgency. Nevertheless, as Mariaschin cautions: "Whether or not [an agreement] can be reached by the end of his second term is not clear.

If we are now to enter the most critical phase of the process -- the framework agreements -- the process musn't be rushed, lest a bad peace be concluded. Even if all this goes beyond January 2001, the Clinton team will certainly receive credit for its eight years of effort to resolve this conflict."

This is a volatile region where personal motives do count. Yasser Arafat and Syria's President Assad are elderly and in frail health. Assad wants to be remembered as the man who recovered the Golan, and Barak has indicated he is ready to at least talk about that possibility, although he will surely want to retain some kind of security on the hills that leave Israel so vulnerable. Jordan has a new king eager to honor his father's memory, and America has a departing president who badly needs a dignified place in history -- and is looking to the Holy Land for his salvation.

Nina Donaghy

Nina Donaghy is a producer in the BBC's Washington bureau.

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Bill Clinton Hillary Rodham Clinton Middle East