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Jewish World Review July 14, 2000 /11 Tamuz, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Don’t Blame Bill

Camp David concessions will be Barak’s responsibility, not Clinton’s -- DURING A BRIEF STOPOVER in Philadelphia this week, President Bill Clinton told an audience at a political fundraiser that he had been spending most of his free time studying up on the geography of Jerusalem and the “West Bank.”

The implication of his remarks seemed to be that he is fully prepared to go all out to secure a deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority at the Camp David summit he has convened. And if the location of an Israeli settlement or strategic site were to stand in the way of that success, then he was not about to be put at a disadvantage due to ignorance of the facts on the ground.

These remarks played directly into the question that will be uppermost in the minds of many American Jews from the moment Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak arrives this week at Camp David until the end of the summit with P.A. leader Yasser Arafat and the president: Can Barak resist the pressure that Clinton will place upon the Israeli leader to make a deal?

The assumption on the part of many people, especially friends of the Jewish state, is that the concessions Israel will make during the conclave will be due to intolerable coercion on the part of an American delegation that is desperate for a successful conclusion to the summit.

Everyone knows that the lame-duck president is desperate for another foreign-policy triumph as part of his historic legacy. Clinton is also well-known to be one who covets the Nobel Peace Prize, an award that might be his should Camp David II succeed.

Clinton does think that Barak owes him for his election victory last year and the political connections between the two, of which Clinton political operative James Carville is the symbol, are far-reaching. The president has good reason to feel that Barak will do what he wants once he gets him alone in a room with Arafat.

The precedent of previous summits also points to U.S. pressure as being the linchpin of success. That was the case in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter ganged up with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to strong-arm Menachem Begin into giving up more than expected.

The 1998 summit at the Wye plantation in Maryland with Arafat, Clinton and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was another case of an Israeli leader being taken to the cleaners by an overbearing American diplomatic effort.

Like the famous “Dry Bones” cartoon of 1978, in which artist Yaakov Kirschen depicted Begin as a little boy who was being sent to camp, Barak is expected to be yet another Israeli who will return home from a summer outing with a lot less than he took.

Yet, as much as it pains me to come to the defense of a man whose record on Israel is overrated and whose policies I generally oppose (and not to mention that he is personally a dishonorable scoundrel), putting the blame for Israel’s giveaways solely on Bill Clinton will be unfair.

If Israel bends on the points that Ehud Barak has said are his “red lines,” then it will be Barak’s fault, not Clinton’s.

Before leaving for Camp David on the heels of the collapse of his government and the humiliation of barely surviving a no-confidence vote, Barak told the Israeli people he would not give in on the following points: no division of Israel’s capital, Jerusalem; no return to the June 4, 1967 borders; no foreign army west of the Jordan; no acceptance by Israel of legal or moral responsibility for Arab refugees.

These are popular and reasonable positions, but the reason his government fell is that no one — not even Barak’s foreign minister, David Levy — believes him when he says he will stick to his guns.

Why? Because Barak’s negotiators in the preliminary talks with the Palestinians have been leaking reliable information to the press that some of those “red lines” have already been washed away.

Jerusalem is a certain point of compromise, as left-wing scholars and pundits in the Barak camp have already made it clear that Arafat will get “civilian control” of many Arab neighborhoods, effectively dividing the city.

Barak has also already signalled that he is prepared to hand over full and permanent control of more than 90 percent of the territories to Arafat and to accept some 1948 Arab refugees — both previously unthinkable decisions for an Israeli prime minister.

And Arafat’s “police” force is already a sizable armed force that has the ability to inflict serious casualties on Israel (as they did during the riots Arafat incited over the trumped-up Jerusalem tunnel controversy in 1996). All of these positions are a drastic shift from traditional Israeli security policies and are a lot more than the late Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the Oslo accords in 1993, ever dreamed of relinquishing.

Why is Barak going to Camp David with this in mind?

It’s simple: Barak is pursuing these policies because he actually believes they are what Israel needs. The prime minister is not a reluctant tourist at Camp David.

He also knows that without a peace deal, his government is doomed to failure. Having effectively torpedoed his broad coalition over his willingness to eschew “red lines,” he has no reason to hold back once he is in Maryland.

Moreover, Barak genuinely believes that he can end the conflict with a bold stroke of diplomacy, much as he was able to win battles as a commando. This idea may be more a product of hubris, which leads him to see himself as the savior of the Israeli people (as his anti-democratic attitude towards the Knesset in which he sees himself as unaccountable to anyone seems to indicate) than of common sense. Nevertheless, this is his idea, not Clinton’s.

THE YEAR IS 2000, NOT 1978
As for Clinton, for all our justified fears of American pressure, the fact is, if Israel chose to stand up to the expected Clintonian coercion, there is little doubt it could do so successfully. Unlike Carter, who, in 1978, had two more years in office during which he could squeeze Israel, Clinton has but five months left on his lease on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Even if he actually chooses to use that time making Barak pay for his stubbornness, do we really think he would sink Vice President Al Gore’s presidential campaign just to get even for a failed summit? Not likely, when Israel could count on a sympathetic Congress to back up its refusal to give in on its own security.

In the end, the summit may collapse in failure due more to Arafat’s obduracy than to that of Barak. Israel can look forward to a future filled with violence courtesy of the Palestinian state whether a deal is signed or not. But if a deal is reached, as much as it might be easy to blame Clinton for what Israel may do at Camp David, it is time for American Jews to face facts.

Despite the trappings of American presidential pomp and diplomatic prowess, this will be Barak’s show.

Blame him if you don’t like the outcome, not Clinton.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. He was the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association's highest awards in two categories: First Place in the Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary and Editorial Writing for his column "Israel's China Syndrome -- and Ours" and First Place for Excellence in Arts and Criticism for his column "Jewish Art, Jewish Artists." The awards were given to Mr. Tobin at the AJPA's 2000 Simon Rockower Awards dinner at Washington D.C. on June 22, 2000. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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