The Wisdom of Quiet Diplomacy

Former President Clinton met with Yassar Arafat 15 times, more often than he met with any other foreign leader during his 8 years in office.  Now, on the $250,000 an hour lecture circuit in synagogues across America, Clinton bemoans how Arafat stiffed him at the Camp David summit, and then again by starting the intifada.

Critics of President George Bush have attacked him for failing to directly engage in the Middle East conflict, as Clinton did.  Bush has not convened any summit between the warring parties, and has never met with Arafat. These critics of the Bush policy (such as Jimmy Carter) understand engagement to mean putting pressure on Israel to make the concessions necessary to get the Palestinians back to the table, and perhaps to stop killing Jews for a few weeks at a time. 

It is hard to fathom how the same people who regard Bush as a foreign policy ing ue, and a diplomatic nightmare, also expected him to work at a Camp David style summit for a few weeks, and accomplish something that Bill Clinton with all his charm, verbal agility, and powers of political persuasion, was unable to achieve in the year 2000 at Camp David.

While the Iraq conflict and the heavily politicized 9/11 hearings have been dominating the mass media, the Bush administration and the Sharon government have been quietly discussing ways for Israel to take some substantive steps that might tamp down the level of violence, and improve the lives and security of both Palestinians and Israelis. At a press conference on Wednesday, after a meeting with Prime Minister Sharon, the President signaled that his administration was making a break with State Department policy on several final status issues that have been in force for half a century. These now—discarded policies had implicitly favored the Palestinian side on several very contentious disputes between the two sides.

The current Sharon visit to Washington concerns the Prime Minister's plan to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza, and to close down a few permanent settlements on the West Bank. Sharon will take this policy initiative to a referendum of his Likud Party in early May. The visit to Washington was clearly designed to try to win some support from the Bush Administration which might influence skeptics in the Likud Party to give Sharon's program a chance.

For many years, some pro—Israel advocates have maintained that Israel will be ready to make substantive concessions only when it feels it has a solid partner in the United States, rather than an 'ally' that is really doing the Palestinians' bidding and pressuring Israel to make concessions.  The Clinton administration worked well with the Rabin government, and the Barak government.  Barak, himself, decided on what to offer the Palestinians at Camp David and later at Taba. But when Likud leader Bibi Netanyahu was Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999, the Clinton administration basically tried to break his knees, demanding specific percentages of the West Bank to be turned over to the Palestinians, and treating him as an outsider.   During the Clinton years, the Oslo process was supposed to have created the conditions for making peace. In retrospect, that did not happen.

Today, there is no ongoing peace process, and no peace partner for Israel among the Palestinians. But despite this, Sharon and Bush are on the verge of achieving more for both Israel and the Palestinians than occurred during the fiction of the Oslo peace process.  The hard—line Likud leader Ariel Sharon, the father of the settlement movement, has proposed dismantling all the settlements in Gaza, and five in the West Bank. The earth is moving, even if the press has been ignoring it.

Uprooting the Jewish settlements in Gaza, and evacuating the 8,000 settlers, might help accomplish a few things. It would leave the Palestinians without Jewish targets in Gaza. It would also remove 1.3 million Palestinians from all the demographic nightmare scenarios relating to Jews becoming a minority within the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River sometime in the next ten years. Completion of the security fence and withdrawal from a few West Bank settlements, will further limit the area that Israel controls in the territories, and presumably is responsible for overseeing. Sharon has identified five blocks of settlements that he has stated will remain part of Israel. They include settlements around Jerusalem (including Maaleh Adunim), Gush Etzion, and Ariel, among others.  All these settlement blocks will be within the new security fence that is being constructed.

Many critics of Israel have failed to notice, or deliberately ignored, the fact that when Palestinians demand an end to Jewish settlements on the West Bank, they also demand that all the Jews leave all parts of East Jerusalem.  This includes the old city, in which Jews have maintained a continuous presence for 2000 years, except for the 19 years of Jordanian rule between 1948 and 1967, when the Jordanians destroyed all the synagogues in the old city, and used the Mount of Olives gravesites for latrines. 

Sharon seems to agree with those analysts who believe that the failure of Camp David and the anger unleashed by the current intifada have eliminated the possibility of a final status settlement for years to come. The withdrawal from Gaza is not something required by the roadmap for peace, the plan that was agreed on by Sharon, Bush and the former Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen.  Undermined by Arafat's treachery, Abu Mazen resigned within months of his appointment, realizing he had been given no authority to negotiate for the Palestinians. The roadmap process has been dead in its tracks ever since. The roadmap's initial phase called for Israel to dismantle illegal outposts —— in most cases nothing more than caravan encampments established by a few settlers on isolated hilltops. Some of this has been done, but the pressure Sharon might have felt to complete this gesture disappeared when Palestinian terror attacks continued, and the PA made no attempt to disarm the terror groups, as they were required to do as a corresponding step in the first phase of the roadmap.

Bush's comments at the press conference indicated that a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians would have to take account of new demographic realities, including certain Jewish settlement activity, and that the 1949 (or pre—1967 lines) were not hard lines.  This is consistent, of course, with what American negotiators anticipated when they helped draft UN resolution 242 in November 1967, knowing then that some border adjustments would occur. Perhaps even more important, Bush stated that Palestinian refugees should expect to be resettled in a Palestinian state, when that is established, and not in Israel.

Egypt, the PA, and various European 'allies' had pressured Bush in the last week to not give away too much (or anything) to Sharon in exchange for this proposed withdrawal from Gaza. But Bush resisted their entreaties. For a half century, the State Department has seemed to give some credence to UN resolution 181, which ostensibly provides some measure of support for the so called right of return of refugees from the 1948 war.  At this point, 55 years after that resolution was adopted, perhaps only 200,000 of the 4 million or more who claim refugee status, are in fact living original refugees (the refugees from that war numbered perhaps 600,000, and two thirds of them have already died).  The rest of the 4 million (more than 95%) are descendants of refugees who never have stepped foot in Israel. Only in the fantasy land of Middle East politics can these people be considered refugees with a right of 'return' to some place they never left or entered. 

This conflict still exists, however, primarily because of the angry Palestinians living in miserable conditions in these refugee camps, 50 years after their families could have been resettled and been given the chance to move on with their lives. Give 'credit' to the United Nations for helping create this situation and then allowing it to perpetuate.  Most Palestinian refugees from the 1948—49 war left of their own volition, and were not driven out by the Zionists.

This was not the case with the larger number of Jews who were expelled from Arab countries after the creation of Israel. Israel absorbed these refugees, and they are today functioning members of their society.  This is also the case for all the other refugee populations from all the other wars of the last century. None of them are still in camps decades later. But it is not true for the Palestinians, who with the blessing of their Arab brothers, have either chosen to remain in these refugee camps, or been prohibited from leaving them (e.g. Lebanon), if they can not live in Israel.  So Palestinians rattle old keys, and demand a right to return to homes that do not exist anymore, and which almost all of them have never visited.

So I give credit to the President for acknowledging reality, and trying to nudge the Palestinians to move from their fantasy of how this conflict can be resolved, towards a real compromise with Israel.  As long as the millions of so—called refugees can cling to a legal fiction that they will some day return to Israel, reclaim cities and homes, and drive the Zionists out, this conflict cannot end. It may not end soon in any case. But Sharon is trying to minimize the areas of conflict and the flashpoints between the two sides by a withdrawal from Gaza, and completion of the security fence. And Bush has helped, by putting America on record that the home for Palestinians will be a Palestinian state, and not Israel.

This is not Clinton—style engagement, but it is genuine substance, and hopefully will bring Israel closer to peace and security.