Let’s try ‘waging peace’ with Bill Clinton as special envoy

Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light


The long, exhausting 2012 election campaign is finally over, much to the relief of a public saturated almost to the breaking point by non-stop attack advertisements and a regrettable lack of specific goals, especially in the foreign policy area.  Now that President Barack Obama has been re-elected, it is time to truly put aside partisan differences, bind up the wounds of the bruising campaign and get back to business.

One area which cries out for immediate attention is  he long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” Presidents going all the way back to Harry S Truman, who recognized the State of Israel 11 minutes after its Proclamation of Independence, and continuing through Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush to first-term Obama, have grappled with this seemingly intractable problem. It is somewhat ironic to note that Jimmy Carter, who in his post-presidency days became harshly one-sided in his criticisms of Israel, was the one president who achieved the most significant breakthrough: the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty between then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.


Next to Carter in significant accomplishment was former President Bill Clinton. Under his watch the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization were seized upon and shaped into the signing of the “Declaration of Principles” on the White House south lawn on Sept. 13, 1993.  Under the Oslo Accords and Declaration of Principles, a goal was set for what has come to be known as the “two-state solution,” the Jewish State of Israel and an Arab State of Palestine, living side-by-side in security and peace.”

That seemingly simple formulation proved incredibly difficult to achieve.  Clinton was able to follow up the 1993 agreement with a peace treaty between the Kingdom of Jordan and Israel in 1994,  and there were even efforts to achieve peace between Israel and Syria Clinton came very close to achieving agreement on a two-state solution in July 2000, when he met at Camp David with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.  Clinton proposed what observers then and now have called a “very generous offer” to the Palestinians:  an independent state, which would include all of the Gaza Strip, 96 percent of the West Bank, shared administration of the Old City of Jerusalem and its holy places.

Ehud Barak, then a Labor Party leader, told Clinton and Arafat that the plan seemed heavily tipped in favor of the Palestinians and against the interests of Israel. But Barak said in order to prevent future wars between his children and grandchildren and those of Arafat, he would seek to get it ratified by the Israeli Knesset.

When Barak and Clinton asked Arafat for his response, they were met with stony silence.  Eventually Arafat stormed out of the talks, returned to Ramallah and proceeded to organize, finance and foment the Second Intifada, which would cost 1,000 Israeli lives and the lives of 2,500 Palestinians, according to Dennis Ross, a veteran Middle East negotiator in his memoir, “A Missing Peace.”

Bill Clinton was infuriated at Arafat for scuttling the agreement.

In the meantime, Arafat, who remained opposed to peace until the very end, has died and has been replaced as Palestinian Authority President by Mahmoud Abbas. He has properly been called “ineffectual,”but has consistently rejected terrorism and violence.  Though there were some  hopeful talks between Abbas and former Israeli Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, they did not achieve success.

During Obama’s first term, the distinguished diplomat, former Senator George Mitchell, who had achieved the “Good Friday Accords” to end the violence in Northern Ireland after a 30-year struggle.was named Special Envoy to the Middle East Peace Process. However, he, too, failed to bring the parties together.

Why is now the time for a resumption of the Israel-Palestinian track?  With so much else going on in the region, does the timing make sense?  

The so-called Arab Spring continues to play out violently in Syria, where 30,000 Syrians have been killed and 300,000 have fled into neighboring nations. Egypt has elected a member of the Muslim Brotherhood as its president.  The radical theocratic government of Iran continues to press forward with its drive to develop nuclear weapons despite the crippling sanctions that have been placed on its economy. In the midst of all this chaos, perhaps this is a good time to renew the effort at an Israel-Palestine breakthrough with Bill Clinton heading up the effort. Thomas L. Friedman, in his New York Times column Sunday, quoted Mahmoud Abbas as saying in a recent interview, “Palestine for me is the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital. This is Palestine. I am a refugee. I live in Ramallah. The West Bank and Gaza is Palestine. Everything else is Israel.”

Friedman points out that “this is a big signal,” but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) “scorned it,” when as Israeli novelist David Grossman said that Netanyahu should “discern these rare hints of opportunity.”

Friedman also laments that Netanyahu has merged his nationalist Likud Party with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu Party, headed by “his thuggish partner, Foreign Minister Avidgdor Lieberman.”  But perhaps Friedman, who is often correct in his observations about the Middle East, is wrong on this one.  Abbas has been adrift for the past 18 months since his plan to do an “end run” around the agreed-upon “Roadmap” to peace by doing an end-run to seek admission and/or recognition as an independent state by the United Nations has gone nowhere.

Often times the “hard-line” political leaders are the very ones who can make a deal and prevent it from being blocked or overturned. It was Richard Nixon, the veteran anti-Communist, who opened the door to Communist China; it  was Charles DeGaulle, the great military hero of World War II France, who let go of Algeria, and it was Menachem Begin, founder of the Irgun, an ultra-nationalist Zionist organization, who negotiated and signed the peace treaty with Anwar Sadat.

Even Bibi Netanyahu, during Bill Clinton’s presidency, agreed to the Wye River Accords, which finalized the status of the city of Hebron and its Jewish residents and neighbors. It was negotiated with Yasser Arafat, and Ariel Sharon, then considered the ultimate “hard-liner.”

Bill Clinton, whose galvanizing speech at the Democratic National Convention and tireless campaigning surely helped Obama win re-election, is the ideal person to take on the position of special envoy to the Israel-Palestine peace process.  If anybody could do it, Clinton can.