Memo to Hillary: Remember Bill's Mideast Bungle
In an exclusive excerpt from his new book, A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East—from the Cold Wars to the War on Terror, Patrick Tyler examines how Bill Clinton's lack of discipline undermined his dream of brokering peace in the Middle East.
Three hundred Palestinians had died in the new intifada [September 2000] and the Arab world was seething because President Bill Clinton had failed. One of Arafat’s negotiators, Yasser Abed Rabbo, called Ehud Barak a “war criminal” in public. The momentum that both sides had developed for peace was dissipating rapidly. Yassir Arafat and Barak, like tribal leaders, reverted to combat mode.
Barak’s advisors pleaded with the prime minister to meet with Arafat, but Barak seemed paralyzed by the violence and by Ariel Sharon’s formidable traction with the Israeli electorate.
Clinton had run out of proposals. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians felt they could live within the president’s parameters. Barak told his negotiators privately that he needed a minimum of 8 percent of Palestinian territory to annex if he was to accommodate all of the settler blocs in the West Bank. That put him outside the 94–96 percent range, though not by much.
Clinton told Arafat: "I am a failure, and you have made me one."
On January 11, 2001, Saeb Erekat briefed the Israelis on the reservations that Arafat had laid out to Clinton. Arafat wanted some recognition of the right of return even if it was not implemented; he wanted one-for-one land swaps for any land he had to give up around Jerusalem. The outline of a deal was still there, and the negotiators reconvened at Taba in one desperate last effort, but neither side came with leaders who were fully on board. Meanwhile, Clinton’s presidency expired with a fusillade of recriminations.
On the day before the Bush inauguration, Arafat called Clinton to thank him and to tell him he was a great man. The Clinton proposal would live on, Arafat said, even if the time was not yet ripe. His negotiators were going to keep working with the Israelis.
Clinton responded, “Mr. Chairman, I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me one.” 89
It was a harsh judgment, and it raised a critical question about Clinton’s presidency: With all of the high-mindedness of his peacemaking efforts in the Middle East, what had really undermined Bill Clinton in the end?
It may take years to answer the question satisfactorily, but the dominant threads were visible all along: Clinton’s lack of discipline, his unwillingness to table his own proposals early in the process, his reliance on Barak to frame the tactics and terms for compromise, his prodigious capacity for empathy that mired him in sentimentalism and undermined the resolute pressure that is the hallmark of leadership.
The truth was that Clinton had been the beneficiary of a great convergence: the end of the cold war, the advent of Yitzhak Rabin’s premiership, and the PLO’s decision to recognize the Jewish state and make peace. Clinton performed admirably in the fat years when the White House was needed as a backdrop for handshakes and signing ceremonies. But after Rabin’s death, Clinton did little to oppose Benjamin Netanyahu’s willful dismantling of a peace process that had broad support among Jews in Israel and the US.
Clinton’s style was to stage tantrums in adjoining rooms so Netanyahu could hear; he disparaged the Israeli prime minister to other people, but in the main he allowed Netanyahu to intimidate official Washington by shows of force in Congress and verbal bullying supplied by members of his coalition, most prominently Ariel Sharon. As Netanyahu did so, the deadlines and milestones of the Oslo peace succumbed to cynical delays and robust expansions of settlements. That was the old Yitzhak Shamir strategy. The continuous building enraged Arabs, inciting a terrorist response and the steady strengthening of Hamas, which rejected Arafat’s engagement with the Zionist “enemy.”
Arafat was a controversial figure, too, a skilled liar and a political survivor, and when he saw that Netanyahu was gaming him and that Fatah’s support was eroding, he played the terror card to show he still led a potent liberation movement. But no objective analysis of Arafat’s leadership from the mid-1980s onward could fail to conclude that he personally had pulled and tugged the PLO into the political process that he hoped would lead to peace. How else to explain his behavior over 15 years?
Arafat’s concept of Palestinian statehood rested on manifold assurances for Israeli’s security even as he secretly smuggled in larger weapons for his security forces so they could face the 50-caliber machine guns that Israel had turned on them. Arafat’s reticence in January 2001 was not an indication that he opposed the agreement that had taken shape. Indeed, he was on the knife’s edge, as his pleas for Saudi and Egyptian support indicated. Rather, it showed that the Palestinians were reading the incoming Bush administration—incorrectly, it turned out—as a reincarnation of the first Bush administration. Arafat gambled that the political environment for a peace settlement would improve with George W. Bush and that Sharon, if he were elected, would be disciplined by an American president who, like his father, was believed to be capable of taking a tough stand with an Israeli prime minister.
After he survived impeachment, Clinton had taken an approach to the Middle East peace process that had too firmly put the United States in the thrall of Barak’s frenetic tactics. Barak’s strategy, churlish in its lack of regard for Arafat as a partner, failed to recapture the trust and confidence of the Palestinians, which was the most constructive achievement of Rabin’s tenure. Even the Israelis lost confidence in Barak.
Clinton also failed to hold the trust he had built with Hafez al-Assad of Syria, who was ready for a compromise based on the Rabin formula of full withdrawal in exchange for full peace. Clinton’s aides complained that Barak had turned the American president into a clerk, and there was some truth to the charge. Clinton exuded remarkable characteristics of empathy and understanding, but his approach was missing the most essential ingredients: trust that he would do what was necessary, unwavering principle, and political discipline.
Excerpted from A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East—from the Cold Wars to the War on Terror, published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by Patrick Tyler. All rights reserved.
89 Bill Clinton, My Life, p. 944.
Patrick Tyler has reported extensively from both the Middle East and Washington for The New York Times and The Washington Post. A Texan, he lives in Washington, D.C.