7th January 2001
Peace: countdown begins for Clinton
|NEW YORK— The
Middle East has remained one of the world's major troublespots because
of the bitter and seemingly never-ending conflict between Israelis and
Palestinians: a conflict that has defied solution for decades.
But with less than two weeks before he leaves office on Saturday January 20, President Clinton is making a desperate, last-ditch effort to help resolve the intractable problem that has been a political quagmire for most American presidents.
A cartoon in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week depicted a moving company carting away Clinton's belongings from the White House even as the outgoing president was fighting against time to bring the Palestinians and the Israelis to a final negotiating session.
The cartoon showed Clinton on a swivel chair still on the phone talking to one of the leaders in the Middle East as he was being wheeled from the White House into the moving truck: "Quick, we've still got a few minutes to hammer out a Middle East peace deal...," he shouts over the phone.
The problem that has lingered for decades is now on a rapid fire countdown— reduced to days, hours and minutes.
If Clinton succeeds in getting the Israelis to agree to a full-fledged Palestinian state (along with most of Israeli-occupied Jerusalem), he will certainly have his place in history— not forgetting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. But will he?
As the US-brokered negotiations continued over the past few months, the Israelis and the Palestinians took turns being villains one day and heroes the next day.
The New York Times used a tennis metaphor to describe the status of the ongoing negotiations. Was the ball in the Palestinian court or the Israeli court? The truth of the matter, the Times said, is that nobody wants it.
As of Friday, Clinton had been able to get an agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. And now it is the turn of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to respond. The political see-saw may or may not end by January 20. If it does not, the new US President George W. Bush will begin his administration with a political hot potato in his hands.
After a meeting with Arab leaders in Cairo last week, Arafat said he hopes for a final peace agreement before Clinton leaves office.
"I believe we would reach, if not an agreement, some fundamanetal declaration of principles which can form the basis of an agreement," he added.
The peace negotiations have also got entangled in the domestic politics of Israel as Barak faces an election on February 6.
Barak's opponent is the hardline Likud leader Ariel Sharon who is responsible for Israel's disastrous military adventure in Lebanon and also for the current spate of violence in Israeli occupied territories.
The primary concern for Barak is: would a peace deal with Palestinians help or hurt him in his re-election bid next month. As the old saying goes: while every statesman thinks of the next generation, every politician thinks only of the next election.
Arafat, who was once accused of selling out the Palestinians, has continued to stand firm on two key issues: Palestinian sovereignty over Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homes taken over illegally by Israel.
As of last week, the terms of the proposed agreement on the disputed issue of Jerusalem may be a split-level sovereignty. Under the American proposed plan, the Palestinians would have sovereignty over the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aksa Mosque while the Israelis would control or share control of the underground area holding the remains of the First and Second Temples of the ancient Jews. The adjoining Western Wall will remain in the hands of the Israelis.
Arafat has still refused to concede on the right of return of Palestinian refugees. But in a turnaround he has indicated his willingness to negotiate what has long been considered "a sacred nationalist goal" of the Palestinians.
An Arab newspaper columnist, who has been privy to the closed-door negotiations, recently recounted some of the details of the initial talks held in Camp David last year.
At one point, he said, Clinton was exerting tremendous pressure on Arafat to accept a deal which was less favourable to the Palestinians.
Arafat realized that if he accepted the offer, it would have been the end of the road for him. In short, the trip back home would have been a suicidal mission. Unable to take the pressure any longer, Arafat turned to Clinton and said: "Do you really want to come to my funeral?"
Editorial/ Opinion Contents
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