With a couple of weeks to go before he leaves the White House, President Clinton's last forlorn attempt to pose as a peacemaker in the Middle East seems doomed to failure. After seven years of a "peace process" in which Clinton claimed to be acting as a mediator, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he was willing to consider the latest in a series of proposals put to him by the outgoing U.S. president, but expressed serious reservations.
The Palestine Liberation Organization raised three main objections to the proposals. The proposals made no provisions for a viable Palestinian state, without which there could be no lasting peace. By permitting them to keep the settlements they built in the West Bank and Gaza in violation of United Nations Resolution 242, the proposals effectively rewarded the Israelis for their illegal colonization effort. And they denied the right of Palestinians exiled at the time of Israel's birth in 1948 to return to their homes, although this right is enshrined in the United Nations' Resolution 194, adopted half a century ago and reiterated every year since.
Even if he wanted to, Arafat would not be able to agree to these conditions for a peace settlement so blatantly weighted in Israel's favor. His people would not sanction it, nor would they give up their "Intifada of al-Aqsa" uprising against the Israelis' continuing denial of their right to freedom and independence. The fact is that the Palestinians have concluded that Clinton's "peace process" is in reality a smokescreen behind which the Israelis and their American patrons have collaborated to frustrate the right of the Palestinians, accepted by the rest of the world, to self-determination.
This conclusion is widely shared here in Europe, where many people think that U.S. Middle East policy is unreasonably biased in favor of Israel as the result of the influence of the powerful Zionist lobby in Congress. Most obviously, American compliance with the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza have plainly made it more difficult to envisage any possible agreement between Israel and the people whose land it is occupying. There is an opportunity here for President-elect George W. Bush to modify the U.S. bias toward Israel and explore the ground for a more even-handed approach to the problem of establishing peace in the Middle East.
For more than three months now, as violence has flared up all over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the streets of Arab cities all across the Middle East have resounded to the cry of Arab unity. This has awakened echoes for me of my first days as a newspaper correspondent in 1955, when I was reporting the Suez crisis for the old Manchester Guardian.
At that time, the Americans were regarded as friends of the Arabs. Today things are very different; it's the Americans, along with Israel, whom most Arabs regard as their enemy. In Cairo and Amman and Damascus, and even in the sheikhdoms of the Gulf and in distant Yemen and Morocco, voices are being raised -- spontaneously and insistently -- by ordinary citizens who want their governments to unite in pursuit of a common objective: to save Arab Jerusalem from a blatant attempt by Israel, with the backing of the United States, to hijack the Holy City.
Some people, including President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, would challenge the assertion that the United States supports Israel in its determination to hold on to what it has taken by force.
Hasn't Clinton devoted endless hours in his efforts to bring the Arabs and the Israelis together? Hasn't he been the "honest broker," selflessly sacrificing all his energies to the search for a just solution to their quarrel? And is not the reason for his failure -- and you have only to look at the situation in the Middle East today to understand the enormous scale of that failure -- due to the obstinacy of Arafat and the refusal of the Palestinians to accept the terms of peace they have been offered?
That may be the way it looks from 5,000 miles away, but to the Arabs the situation couldn't be more at odds with that image. They see the American government pouring money and arms into Israel, to the tune of some $5 billion a year (far more than the U.S. gives any other country), while the Palestinians whose lands the Israelis have occupied and whose economy they have destroyed are condemned to live in refugee camps or, if they are lucky, to work at menial tasks for Israeli employers. And for those of us who have been in close touch with the Arab-Israeli problem for many years, this is very close to the truth.
What about the celebrated peace process then, which started seven years ago with that famous handshake on the White House lawn between Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel's prime minister, and Arafat? Surely all these meetings at Camp David, the Wye River Valley and, more recently, Sharm al-Sheikh were attempts by the Americans to reach a fair compromise between the Israelis, with their anxiety about security, and the Palestinians, who wanted to win their independence. On the face of it, yes. But in reality the peace process (lots of process, but no peace) has consisted of a series of piecemeal deals proposed by the United States and Israel acting as one team and reluctantly accepted by the Palestinians on the basis of "concessions" by the Israelis, which were, in fact, never made.
The clearest illustration of the insincerity of Israel's approach to the peace process is to be seen in the Jewish settlements established by successive Israeli governments all over the occupied territories. When the Israelis won their sweeping victory in 1967 and occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, the U.N. Security Council debated long and hard before reaching a unanimous decision about the peace that should follow. That decision -- expressed in the famous Resolution 242, to which the United States was a party -- called for a bargain between Israel and the Arabs. The Arabs were to recognize Israel's right to exist in peace and security and the Israelis were to withdraw their forces "from territories occupied in the recent conflict."
But within weeks of the ending of "the recent conflict," the Israeli government established the first Jewish settlements on land confiscated from Arabs. This was against the spirit of Resolution 242 and it was illegal under international law, which forbids an occupying power to colonize the territories it occupies -- as is clearly stated in the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1948.
This matter of the Jewish settlements is one of which I have a good deal of personal knowledge. In January 1968, I was in Jerusalem on a fact-finding mission and went to see the Palestinian mayor, who was still in office in East Jerusalem. (The Israelis deported him a few months later, without any pretext or accusation of ill-doing.) As we talked, an aide came in to tell him that the Israeli government had announced the confiscation of 800 acres of Arab land on Mount Scopus, overlooking the old walled city. On it they were to build in the following years the first of the settlements with which they gradually altered the demographic balance between Jews and Arabs in the city that they were to claim as the "eternal and undivided capital" of the Jewish State, brushing aside the rights and the feelings of the Palestinians whose ancestors had lived there for centuries. In May 1968, the Security Council "deplored" Israel's unilateral action and called on it to undo it. The U.S. abstained, but when the council adopted an even stronger resolution in the following year, the U.S. voted for it, making the resolution unanimous.
But the rebuke meant little to the Israelis, who pushed full steam ahead with their unabashedly illegal project in Jerusalem. Before the end of 1968 the Israelis also expanded the settlement projects into the other occupied territories -- effectively thumbing their nose at Resolution 242. At that time, there was ample opportunity for the United States, with its unparalleled connections with and influence over Israel, to put a stop to a process that was obviously damaging to any prospect of peacemaking between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Instead, the United States did the reverse.
Rather than using its ample resources as a superpower to pressure Israel into making peace with its neighbors, the United States took on the task of arming it. The pledge by President Lyndon Johnson during the presidential election campaign in the autumn of 1968 to sell Israel 50 Phantoms, then the most advanced strike aircraft in the world, shocked and alienated the Arabs. By the time Richard Nixon, who replaced Johnson in the White House in January 1969, confirmed the sale, the damage was already done.
It was an action that had reverberating and fatal consequences. Not only did it cause consternation in the Arab world, but more ominously it encouraged in the Israelis the dangerous mood of expansionism that had gripped the nation in the wake of its blitzkrieg victory in 1967. Incidentally, it also signalled the involvement of Lebanon in a conflict to which previously it had been only a bystander; the day after the announcement of the Phantoms deal, the Israeli air force raided Beirut airport in reprisal for a guerrilla attack on an Israeli airliner in Athens, and destroyed 13 civil aircraft on the ground.
For the next 20 years I visited Israel and the occupied territories at least once every year and I made a particular point of monitoring the developments of the Israeli settlement program. In Jerusalem, I watched the buildings going up on that confiscated land on Mount Scopus, noting the fortress-like style of the constructions, with stone walls and narrow windows, clearly designed to fight off any future attempt by the Arabs to recover the stolen land. I travelled the West Bank and went south to Gaza and on into Egyptian Sinai, and then north to the Golan Heights in occupied Syria. Everywhere the bulldozers were at work and Jewish settlers were on the move, the most aggressive ones, I noted, coming from Brooklyn and other parts of the United States.
The Brooklyn settlers have been involved in confrontations with Palestinians whose land they occupy and they are very ready with the firearms they always carry. Brooklyn native son Benjamin Goldstein is notorious for having gunned down 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994, while he was wearing his uniform as an officer in the Israeli Army. Goldstein was a follower of Meir Kahane, a Brooklyn-born rabbi who espoused violence against the Arabs until his assassination in 1990. Kahane's divisive rhetoric often encouraged militancy in his disciples. Indeed, Goldstein claimed that he was avenging Kahane's murder when he went on his rampage. (The bitterness engendered by Kahane persists today. Binyamin Kahane, who shared his father's ideology, was murdered along with his wife in the West Bank last weekend.)
The settlers claim that the West Bank, which they refer to as Judaea and Samaria, was given by God to the Jewish people, and that the Palestinians, although their ancestors have been there for a thousand years, are interlopers with no rights. Therefore it is legitimate (some of them would say obligatory) for them to get rid of the Palestinians. They call this "cleansing the land." (Hence, the phrase "ethnic cleansing," which in other contexts Americans consider disreputable. Not here though.)
When Egypt and Syria went to war in 1973 (the "Yom Kippur war") in an attempt to win back what they had lost in 1967, anger over the settlements was one factor that provoked them to so risky an adventure.
But it seemed that nothing could stop the Israelis from pursuing a course of action that plainly indicated their determination not to withdraw from the conquered lands. And the United States, far from trying to discourage Israel, gradually moved away from its commitment as a member of the U.N. Security Council. In American government parlance the settlements were no longer "illegal," but became merely "obstacles to peace," although it was plain for all to see that the enormous American subsidies to Israel were, in fact, helping to pay for them. The touchstone of America's design for the Middle East was the welfare of Israel -- at no matter what cost to the other parties involved.
In 1977, Egypt's President Anwar Sadat took the bold decision to visit Jerusalem and to challenge the Israelis on their own home ground to make peace. At the historic Camp David summit subsequently arranged by President Jimmy Carter, Sadat met Israel's Menachem Begin and they worked out the preliminaries of the peace treaty that led in 1978 to Israel's withdrawal from Sinai. American officials helped to draft the treaty and took pride in the achievement of this first peace agreement between Israel and one of its neighbors. The treaty was supposed to be the first stage in a wider Arab-Israeli agreement that was also intended to bring an end to the conflict over Palestine.
But when the applause and self-congratulatory rhetoric died down and the time came to read the small print of the treaty, it appeared that a clause forbidding further settlement building had somehow been left out. And what was Begin's first brash action after his return from Camp David? He authorized the construction of a new series of settlements. But there was no audible protest from Washington, which was still drunk from the high spirits of Camp David.
It was about this time that a rift began to appear between the United States and its European allies over the best way to handle the Middle East problem. America's one-sided support for Israel had become so conspicuous that the European Community, as it was then called, put out the Venice Declaration, signed in June 1980 by all nine member states, distinguishing and distancing their attitude from that of the United States. The declaration stated unequivocally that the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza were illegal, and that neither side should take any unilateral action to alter the status of Jerusalem. The nine signatories reaffirmed the Palestinian right to self-determination, and they expressed their willingness to take part in and provide guarantees for a comprehensive peace settlement.
However, this European protest measure did nothing to discourage America's partisanship for Israel, even though that partisanship was apparent in the increasingly hard-line policies of the Israeli government. When Palestinian misery and frustration boiled over in the "Intifada" popular uprising in 1987, American commentators joined in the universal criticisms of Israel's brutal reprisals, but the government in Washington, under pressure from a strongly pro-Zionist Congress, continued its lavish military and economic assistance to Israel.
Only after the Gulf War in 1991, in which the administration of George Bush needed and obtained the cooperation of most of the Arab world, did the Americans initiate an attempt to bring together Israelis and Palestinians in a bid to work out a peace agreement that both could accept. With the active collaboration of Secretary of State James Baker, Bush succeeded in persuading the Palestinians that at last their interests were to be reflected, not subordinated to those of Israel.
In 1992, with the election of Clinton, it looked at first as though this even-handed approach was to be continued. After secret negotiations in Oslo had produced the outline of a peace agreement (without any American participation), Clinton invited the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to Washington, where on Sept. 13, 1993, the peace process to which Clinton was to devote so much of his time and from which he hoped to secure a foreign policy achievement to gild his fading reputation was launched.
As it unfolded, with promises from the Israelis of the release of Palestinian prisoners (many of whom are in prison to this day) and of the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and Gaza (which were always delayed and were accompanied by an almost frenzied expansion of Israel's colonization program of the same areas), it gradually became apparent to the Palestinians that they were being taken for a ride. Despite Israeli promises and American assurances, the Palestinians found themselves no nearer to their goal, while the Israelis made it plain that they intended to maintain their domination of whatever kind of Palestinian Bantustan might eventually emerge.
By late summer 2000 the frustration of the Palestinians had reached a dangerous level and their anger was fueled by the conviction that the American government, under the hypocritical leadership of Clinton, had reverted to the traditional policy of outright support for Israel, right or wrong, and of a corresponding disregard for the rights of the Palestinians. On Sept. 28, the deliberately provocative visit of Ariel Sharon, the most conspicuously anti-Arab of all the leading Israeli politicians, to the area the Israelis call the Temple Mount, but that today houses the sacred mosque of al-Aqsa (and the Dome of the Rock, the most beautiful building in the Arab world), touched off a predictable conflagration. So far there is no sign of its dying down.
The catastrophic situation in the Middle East today is not the result of Clinton's actions alone, although he bears a considerable responsibility for it. The fact is that the unconditional support given by successive U.S. administrations to Israel has encouraged in Israel's leaders of every political tendency a sense of megalomania, a conviction that they can get away with that behavior, however illegal and inhumane, without paying the price. It has allowed the Israelis to impose on the Palestinians a regime so repressive that it has left its victims without any legitimate means of redress.
When the new administration takes over in Washington, can the world look forward to a change in this vital area of foreign policy? Will George W. Bush be content to follow in the footsteps of his Democratic predecessor, in which case the present phase of low-level guerrilla activity is likely to develop into something much worse? Or will he, with his seasoned secretary of state, Colin Powell, return to the more detached attitude of his father and try to restore some sort of balance to America's relationship with the protagonists in the Middle East?
What is needed from Washington is a firm decision to curb Israel's presumption and to restore to the Palestinians their right to independence and a dignified existence in the land of their birth. The best way to go about this would be to take the dispute back to the proper forum for negotiations, namely the United Nations.
A blueprint for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict over Palestine was worked out long ago in the Security Council's Resolution 242, and the search for peace should not have been diverted into a fraudulent "peace process," with a self-interested American president masquerading as an "honest broker" but stacking the cards to Israel's advantage. The result has been tragic for the Palestinians, damaging to the reputation of the United States and potentially disastrous for the people of Israel.