Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
January 7, 2001

Time Closes In on Peace

By JANE PERLEZ

 

WASHINGTON -- The prospect of brokering a final Middle East peace accord has lured American presidents for decades.

So in desperately seeking a dash-to-the-finish deal, President Clinton has been pursuing the Holy Grail of American diplomacy. It was a reward that, for all the work of Henry Kissinger, eluded his masters, Presidents Nixon and Ford; it seemed to come closer for the diligent Jimmy Carter; it again eluded Presidents Reagan and Bush (the father), and has tantalized President Clinton for nearly eight years. For Mr. Clinton, who extended his arms around Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993 and has worked every nook and cranny of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since, a final act of peace would be especially sweet.

But as Mr. Clinton's presidency begins its final two weeks, it seems obvious that a final accord will not now happen on his watch. The most that seems possible is the writing of an upbeat script for more talks that would unfold on the next administration's watch.

So the question arises: Has Mr. Clinton's rush toward the Holy Grail been a wise course for the United States, and even for the two sides, at the very point when the presidency is changing hands and when the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, and the Palestinian leader, Mr. Arafat, lack popular support for the enterprise?

Inside the administration, doubts have been voiced quietly about what Mr. Clinton has really been doing. Outside, the doubts have been louder: An ego trip? The final hunt for a legacy? Or a genuine effort to resolve the most vexed issues even though the moment has passed?

As doubts at home intensified last week, Mr. Clinton seemed to suddenly slow down. He lowered his sights from presenting a grand plan for a final peace to be signed by the Palestinians and Israelis to a much more modest American document, perhaps just a presidential statement.

In doing so, Mr. Clinton was hoping to draw a road map for the Bush team should they choose to follow it. If in the next two weeks the Israelis and Palestinians could agree on some broad concepts it would be a road map for them too. The American document would probably list the major issues ó Jerusalem, refugees, borders ó and might suggest some solutions.

But if the newly modest goals represent an admission by Mr. Clinton that he will have much less to show than he once hoped, the Bush administration may be still inheriting more than it bargained for.

Mr. Clinton's aides have insisted that it was more noble to try and fail than not to try at all. The Bush camp doesn't agree. By negotiating so intensely for the last six months but failing to end the conflict, Mr. Clinton has hardened, not eased, positions among Israelis and Palestinians, argues Richard N. Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Haass, who was on the National Security Council in the first Bush administration, argues the case this way: "Up to Camp David one of the moderating forces in the Middle East was the belief that real peace was possible. Now the veil has been taken away. If there is no longer the chance of peace through compromise, then why hold back the fighting, the unilateral actions? That's where failure is so incredibly costly."

Mr. Haass sees a direct correlation between the failed Camp David summit in July and two developments that followed: the violent protests by Palestinians since last fall and the Israeli calls for separation from the Palestinians. "That's the consequence of overly ambitious diplomacy going too far, too fast without paving the way," he said.

Given that backdrop, will George W. Bush's administration be obliged to carry on from where Mr. Clinton left off? Officially, President-elect Bush has supported Mr. Clinton's efforts. But quietly, Middle East experts in the Republican camp have said they would have to examine very closely the implications of any document, no matter how loosely it defined its terms.

In the last few weeks, they have expressed skepticism about whether an Israeli-Palestinian agreement at such a late date could be sustained on the ground. What was the point of any agreement if the Arab world felt that Mr. Arafat had sold out, asked one adviser. Indeed, one of Mr. Arafat's major objections to Mr. Clinton's most recent proposals focused on the notion that Palestinian refugees would not be allowed to return to the homes they fled or were expelled from in 1948. Moreover, the Bush camp has a different Middle East focus. Its members believe that Mr. Clinton has paid too much attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not enough to the overall fabric of the region, particularly the health of the moderate Arab states. They are more oriented toward the Persian Gulf, where they believe American vital interests in oil are at stake. If they had their choice, they would probably prefer to pursue a peace accord between Israel and Syria.

Moreover, two weeks after Mr. Bush enters the White House, there could well be a new Israeli government headed by the hawkish Likud Party leader, Ariel Sharon. He has been scathing about Mr. Clinton's peace initiatives and is unlikely to pay much heed to a statement by Mr. Clinton once he is out of office. Such lack of interest could well dictate a polite but unenthusiastic attitude by the Bush administration toward whatever Mr. Clinton leaves behind.

As Mr. Clinton ramps down his ambitions, it now seems that one element of the ambitious proposals for a final settlement framework that he put forward on Dec. 23 will be cast aside entirely.

Little noticed in the proposals, said Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was the suggestion that an international force could serve on the borders of the new Palestinian state. While it was not spelled out that American soldiers would participate in such a force, it was well understood that that was the plan, Mr. Satloff said. American troops, in other words, would monitor complicated technical and military arrangements, inspecting bags belonging to people crossing into Palestine and stopping illegal immigration.

"We don't even do that well with Mexico," scoffed Mr. Satloff.

Now, with the likelihood of no accord at all, Mr. Satloff believes that Mr. Clinton may be bequeathing the new president the worst of all worlds. Mr. Barak, he said, is heading for electoral defeat largely because he pushed the Clinton peace proposals so hard, even after months of violence. The result is likely to be Mr. Sharon as prime minister and the Palestinians and Israelis more polarized than ever.

Just weeks ago, there was talk in the Barak government of having Mr. Clinton come to Israel as the supersalesman of a peace deal that would propel Mr. Barak toward a re-election victory. Now, even in Washington, that seems a distant dream.