By Geoffrey Johnston, The Whig
Peace in the Middle East has been an elusive goal for many American presidents. And it seems highly unlikely that current U.S. President Donald Trump will succeed where his predecessors failed.
Despite multiple American-led peace initiatives, the region remains blighted by religious radicalism, sectarian conflicts, and a growing hatred of Christians. In addition, virulent anti-Semitism and terrorism are hallmarks of the region.
America’s concern about the state of the Middle East, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is grounded in Realpolitik. The Americans understand that events in the Middle East affect the security of the United States.
For example, in December 2000, outgoing President Bill Clinton received president-elect George W. Bush at the White House for a national security briefing. Clinton explained that the top two security problems confronting the United States were Osama bin laden and al-Qaida, and the absence of peace in the Middle East.
Like so many of his predecessors, President Trump is attempting to restart the stalled Middle East peace process. Unfortunately, he has put his inexperienced son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in charge of a file that has stymied some of America’s greatest diplomats and negotiators.
Clinton, in particular, came tantalizingly close to sealing a historic peace agreement that would’ve established a Palestinian state and ended decades of conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Last minute diplomacy
In the summer of 2000, Clinton brought both sides together at Camp David to hammer out a deal. But after two weeks, the negotiations broke down, leading to renewed violence in the Middle East.
In the final weeks of his presidency, Clinton renewed the peace process, pushing hard for an agreement. But the talks again became bogged down in a swamp of grievances.
“After the two sides had been negotiating again for several days at Bolling Air Force Base, my team and I became convinced that unless we narrowed the range of debate, in effect forcing the big compromises up front, there would never be an agreement,” Clinton writes in his 2004 autobiography My Life.
According to Clinton, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak were reluctant to make a binding peace agreement, because both leaders feared political backlash.
“So I brought the Palestinians and Israeli teams into the Cabinet Room and read them my ‘parameters’ for proceeding,” Clinton says of how he laid down the law to both sides at the White House.
“If they accepted the parameters within four days, we would go forward,” he writes of his high-stakes diplomatic gamble. “If not, we were through.”
Using the power of his office to maximum effect, Clinton made it clear to the Israelis and Palestinians that he was in charge of the peace process. He read out his parameter for peace slowly, “so that both sides could take careful notes.”
The plan offered by Clinton was complicated but clear. It would require both sides to compromise; neither side would get everything it wanted.
“On territory, I recommended 94 to 96 per cent of the West Bank for the Palestinians with a land swap from Israel of one to three per cent,” Clinton recalls. And the president made it clear that “the land kept by Israel would include 80 per cent of the settlers in blocs.”
On the security issue, Clinton declared that Israeli forces should pull out over three years “while an international force would be gradually introduced.” However, a small Israeli force would remain in the Jordan Valley for an additional three years under the auspices of a multinational force.
In addition, Clinton told both sides that “the Israelis would also be able to maintain their early-warning station in the West Bank with a Palestinian liaison presence.” But if an imminent threat to Israel’s security arose, the Jewish state would be permitted to launch “emergency deployments” in the West Bank.
Clinton also made it clear that the new state of Palestine would have “a strong security force” but would be “non-militarized.” Although it would have sovereignty over its airspace, Israel would be permitted to use it for “training and operational needs.” And the borders of the Palestinian state would have to accept “an international force for border security and deterrence.”
On the issue of Palestinian refugees, Clinton told the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators that “the new state of Palestine should be the homeland for refugees displaced in the 1948 war and afterward, without ruling out the possibility that Israel would accept some of the refugees according to its own laws and sovereign decisions, giving priority to the refugee populations in Lebanon.”
When it came to dividing up Jerusalem, Clinton put forth a no-nonsense plan. He sensibly recommended that “the Arab neighbourhoods be in Palestine and the Jewish neighbourhoods in Israel.” And he decided that the Palestinians “should have sovereignty over the Temple Mount/Haram and the Israelis over the Western Wall and the ‘holy space’ of which it is a part.” And excavation around the Western Wall or under the Temple Mount would not be permitted “without mutual consent.”
Last, but perhaps most important, Clinton declared that the peace agreement “had to clearly mark the end of the conflict and put an end to all violence.”
Clinton sternly warned both sides that his parameters for peace were non-negotiable. “I knew the plan was tough for both parties,” the former president writes, “but it was time-past to put up or shut up.”
The deal required both sides to abandon sacrosanct demands in exchange for peace. For example, the Palestinians had to surrender the absolute right of return of refugees. “They had always known they would have to, but they never wanted to admit,” Clinton writes.
For its part, Israel would have to surrender East Jerusalem. “It had been evident for some time that for peace to come, they would have to do that,” he observes. And Clinton points out that his parameters required Israel to “also give up a little more of the West Bank and probably a larger land swap than Barak’s last best offer.”
Arafat, the spoiler
“Arafat immediately began to equivocate, asking for ‘clarifications,’” Clinton writes. But the American president told him that the parameters were already clear. In other words, Arafat would have to “negotiate within them or not.”
As the Palestinian leader played for time, Clinton worked behind the scenes to build international support for the peace deal that he had brokered. For example, he called Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and read the parameters for peace to him. “He said they were historic and he would encourage Arafat to accept them,” Clinton recalls.
In addition, Clinton made daily telephone calls to other Arab leaders, urging them “to pressure Arafat to say yes” to the deal.
By Dec. 27, 2000, the Israeli cabinet had “endorsed the parameters with reservations, but all their reservations were within the parameters, and therefore subject to negotiations anyway,” Clinton writes.
The significance of the Israeli decision should not be underestimated. “It was historic,” Clinton asserts. “An Israeli government had said that to get peace, there would be a Palestinian state in roughly 97 per cent of the West Bank, counting the swap, and all of Gaza, where Israel also had settlements.”
According to Clinton, the Arab leaders with whom he spoke “were all impressed with Israel’s acceptance and told me they believed Arafat should take the deal.”
With Israel’s acceptance of the deal, explains Clinton, “the ball was in Arafat’s court.” Clinton’s team made it crystal clear to Arafat’s people that a rejection of Clinton’s parameters would lead to the defeat of the moderate Barak government in Israel and the election of the hardline Ariel Sharon as the next prime minister of the Jewish state.
In addition, the Americans told the Palestinians that incoming president George W. Bush would not want “to jump in after I had invested so much and failed,” Clinton states.
In other words, Arafat had to make a fateful choice: make peace or kill the only and best chance for achieving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I still didn’t believe Arafat would make such a colossal mistake,” Clinton reveals, noting that he had cancelled a diplomatic mission to North Korea. The U.S. president had planned to personally complete a proposed agreement to end North Korea’s ballistic missile program, but decided not to go at the last minute.
“I simply couldn’t risk being halfway around the world when we were so close to peace in the Middle East, especially after Arafat had assured me that he was eager for an agreement and had implored me not to go.”
Clinton had pushed harder for peace in the Middle East than any world leader in history and was now on the verge of sealing the deal. A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was now at hand.
Tragically, at what should have been Clinton’s moment of triumph, the deal began to unravel.
The second instalment of the series will examine how and why the peace accord began to unravel.