Published on Sunday, February 4, 2001 in the Baltimore Sun
How Honest the American Broker?
by Jim Anderson
WASHINGTON -- Almost unnoticed in the commotion about the change in administrations in Washington is a quiet revolution in U.S. foreign policy. It is not a success story.
Consider: For the past quarter-century, beginning with Henry Kissinger's bravura performance shuttles, the Middle East conflict has been the center-piece of every president's foreign policy agenda. Whether Democrat or Republican, every secretary of state personally struggled to push the Arab-Israeli peace process forward.
That was true for the flashy secretaries like Mr. Kissinger or Madeleine Albright, as well as more workmanlike officials like Warren Christopher (28 trips to Damascus in four years).
But in the aftermath of the fiasco of July's Camp David II summit and the second intifada, which began Sept. 29, both Palestinians and the likely next government of Israel have denounced American mediation attempts as well-meaning, but dangerous or meretricious, or both.
The harshest words came from the Palestinians. In a statement Jan. 22, the Palestinian Authority suggested that the U.S.-led peace process was a sham, a "mirage designed to trick" the Arab governments and to give "a false sense of normalcy" behind which Israel could keep building more settlements in occupied territory and take permanent possession of more of the West Bank and Gaza.
In apparent reference to the U.S. negotiating team, with its key members such as Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk coming from organizations associated with the Israel lobby in Washington, the Palestinian statement said, "Unfortunately over the last seven years in particular, the U.S. has become increasingly identified with Israeli ideological assumptions."
The trigger for the Palestinian anger appears to have been an unusual statement by then-President Bill Clinton after the Camp David summit crashed. He elaborately praised the flexibility and courage of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak but pointedly omitted any mention of Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat and his travails.
For the Israelis, the concessions put on the table by Mr. Barak under relentless pressure from Mr. Clinton, led to the collapse of his uneasy coalition government and the calling of new elections. Polls project him to be defeated soundly by the more hawkish leader of the Likud coalition, Ariel Sharon.
The man who is expected to be one of the inner circle of Mr. Sharon's advisers, former U.N. Ambassador Dore Gold, made it clear that Mr. Sharon will not be calling on the United States for more mediation help. He spoke last week at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel public policy think tank (where Mr. Ross was and will become a senior fellow and where Mr. Indyk was executive director).
Mr. Gold, as is his style, was blunt and to the point. "We maximized the U.S. role, yet we didn't get results. We have way over-used [the American] presidential impact. There may be value in letting the parties engage by themselves" -- that is, without any American presence.
In a biting farewell to Mr. Clinton, Mr. Gold said, "The lesson is that you don't call a Camp David [summit] unless you've done your homework."
So why did such an heroic American effort end in failure and rejection, particularly after it was marked with a triumphant beginning for Mr. Clinton in 1993 on the White House lawn after a joint signing by Mr. Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin?
Simply put, there was always a lack of honesty in the U.S. effort. The "honest broker" had a cultural and political bias toward one party, Israel, and a vast lack of knowledge and sympathy for the other side, the Palestinians.
There was always an internal contradiction in U.S. foreign policy which was overlooked by the Arabs, as long as they could see an advantage for themselves or, more importantly, no alternative.
As the first President George Bush said honestly when he was in office, "We are not even-handed" in the Middle East.
Successive U.S. administrations have made a continuing priority commitment to Israel's security and well-being. That endures, despite inconvenient Israeli governments such as Yitzhak Shamir's or Benjamin Netanyahu's. The reason: Because of the overwhelming sentiments expressed by the American electorate as represented by the Congress, voter turnouts in key states like California and New York and campaign contributions.
The Arab governments do not claim that U.S. sympathy toward Israel resulted in stacking the deck against the Palestinians. What they do suggest is that the background of the American negotiators simply made them insensitive to deeply held Arab views about such issues as recognizing the rights, in some way, of more than 4 million Palestinian refugees.
Second, the world has changed.
Ten years ago, at the end of the Persian Gulf war and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was the only global power that mattered. Now things are more complex. The European Union (EU), by far the largest contributor to the strangling Palestinian economy, is edging closer to the Middle East negotiations and the United Nations is becoming more assertive.
As a symbol of the upheaval in U.S. Middle East policy, the only outsider at the recent Israeli-Palestinian talks in Taba, Egypt, was the representative of the EU, Miguel Moratinos. No American representatives were present or invited by either the Israelis or the Palestinians.
Jim Anderson is a Washington-based correspondent who has covered U.S. foreign policy, including the Kissinger shuttles, for more than 30 years.
© 2001 by The Baltimore Sun