Barring the sort of miracle that seems to be the Holy Land’s past but not its present, Bill Clinton soon will join the club of former American presidents who tried and failed to advance peace in the Middle East. No president has tried harder or risked failure at such a personal level.
Mr. Clinton’s latest, and last, try came Christmas weekend in the form of a proposed framework for further negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. To describe this as cynical 11th-hour legacy building is to ignore the circumstances under which it came and the opportunity it presents.
The proposal came at the direct request of Palestinian and Israeli leaders. Those on either side who earnestly seek peace have learned, though slowly, the value of mediation, even if the mediator is perceived as leaning pro-Israeli, as is Mr. Clinton, or pro-Palestinian, as is Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The framework gets to the core of the most difficult issues – specifically, control of religious sites in Jerusalem and the settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. It forces both sides to abandon hardened positions – for Israel, a unified Jerusalem; for the Palestinians, the unrestricted return of all refugees.
Most importantly, it comes at a critical moment. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has called a snap election in February, an election he surely will lose unless significant progress is made. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat can do nothing and take credit for Mr. Barak’s defeat; he then can deal with the hard-line Likud Party hawks he helped return to power.
The death toll from the 3-month-old uprising now tops 300, recent polls show that the Israeli public leads the politicians in willingness to compromise and to end the bloodshed.
And it comes, of course, just three weeks before the United States will have a new president. It is unfortunate that foreign policy received such scant attention during the campaign – and odd, considering that foreign policy is high in presidential discretion, low in congressional intrusion and thus a good indicator of intent and character – but it seems a safe bet that the Bush administration will be less prone to direct involvement.
After eight years of White House involvement that bordered on handholding, the coming restraint may be helpful. If Israel and the Palestinians are to stand on their own, they now have a solid framework to steady themselves.