Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 August 2000
Issue No. 493
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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Clinton's ugly threats

By Ibrahim Nafie

NafieFollowing the collapse of the Camp David negotiations US President Bill Clinton has been busy making a series of ugly threats. The Palestinian Authority, and the dire consequences it will face should it unilaterally declare a Palestinian state on 13 September and his suggestion that the US embassy could be moved to Jerusalem before the end of the year were part of the invective. It included, too, demands that Arab leaders prepare their peoples to accept the concessions over Jerusalem demanded by Israel and the US -- not least among which is Israeli sovereignty over the vast bulk of the unified city.

Such open threats represent a dangerous development in the US position towards an Arab-Israeli settlement, and mark a quantum leap in Washington's bias towards Israel, implying that the US cares little, if anything, for its relationship with the Arab and Islamic worlds as long as its relationship with Israel remains intact.

Though several US officials, including National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, attempted to defuse the impact of presidential statements concerning Jerusalem by suggesting that they were intended, primarily, to offer support to the beleaguered Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and were made at Barak's request, this in no way mitigates against the potential explosiveness of the president's statements. Nor does it make his statements any more acceptable to suggest that they were born of Clinton's frustration at the collapse of Camp David. The president of the smallest state in the world has no excuse to resort to emotive threats, born of frustration, and issued without weighing their consequences, let alone the leader of the world's sole superpower.

The US president would have been much better advised to address himself to the remedying of those factors that led to the breakdown of negotiations, foremost among which is Israel's continued obstreperousness, fueled by the outrageous bias maintained throughout the negotiations by a US administration happier to pressure Arafat to make ever more concessions on final status issues rather than attempt to persuade Barak that he, too, must make some concessions.

One of the strangest components of the outburst, though, was the demand that Arab leaders must act to prepare their peoples to accept Israel's position on Jerusalem. It is a demand that flies in the face of any sound political thinking. How could any Palestinian or Arab politician be expected to renounce Arab, Islamic and Christian rights in Jerusalem, rights that are enshrined in international law, and which until now have been considered inalienable by successive US administrations?

How, one wonders, does the US president suppose that any Arab leader could dictate to his people that they should abandon any claim to the Islamic sanctuaries in Al-Quds Al-Sharif? Does he suppose that Arab populations are so stupid that they can be persuaded to accept anything the Americans or Israelis want? Does he not realise that peoples are stronger than their governments and that, in the final analysis, it is the people who provide legitimacy to their governments, and that the credibility of leaders, and their ability to exercise power, is dependent on maintaining the rights and interests of those they lead.

Clinton's threat to remove the US embassy to Jerusalem destroys in one stroke the US's credibility, pitting Washington against the entire international community, which for 20 years has refused to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Apart from a few marginal states, countable on the fingers of one hand, the international community has refused to recognise Israel's 1980 declaration that unified Jerusalem was its de facto capital. Why, one might ask, does Clinton now feel the need to ignore the fact that every American administration since 1980 has stuck to this position regardless of the pressure exerted by congressmen and the pro-Israel lobby? And what of the flagrant contradiction between Clinton's threats and recent statements by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the effect that East Jerusalem is occupied territory? Were Albright's statements simply intended to soften the impact of Clinton's crude threats?

Amid all these questions the one thing of which we can be certain is that Clinton's statements on Jerusalem were prompted by a wish to help his wife's campaign to enter the Senate. Currently facing heavy criticism from New York's powerful Jewish community, she quickly attempted to capitalise on her husband's statements, immediately declaring -- and repeating over and over again -- that she favours moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and adding for good measure that should the PA unilaterally declare a Palestinian state by 13 September, then all US aid to the Palestinians should be stopped.

If Hillary Clinton's position accurately reflects that of her husband it is imperative for Clinton's allies to stress to the president that he is not only acting irresponsibly towards people whose rights he is committed to upholding, but also towards the people of America, whose interests he appears willing to sacrifice to increase his wife's electoral chances.

The spin being put on Clinton's position is that he is rewarding Barak for his alleged flexibility in the Camp David meeting. But what flexibility did Barak actually show, given that it was his obstinate insistence that Israel enjoy sovereignty over most of East Jerusalem that led to the break down of negotiations at Camp David? The US administration knows perfectly well that this is totally unacceptable, to Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims and Christians. Yet instead of encouraging Barak to adopt a more reconciliatory approach towards inalienable Palestinian rights over East Jerusalem, Clinton praises Barak for being "flexible", and admonishes Arafat for "rigidity" and an unwillingness to pay the price of peace.

It is important, I think, to underline just what the repercussions of America moving its embassy to Jerusalem are likely to be, given the blithe and simplistic way in which the president appears to be treating the issue. Certainly, it will place a time bomb under the whole peace process, to which the Clinton administration has repeatedly pledged its support. It will mark an end to any last vestiges of American credibility as an honest broker, without which the entire process becomes a lame duck, for no one can seriously expect a settlement to emerge out of negotiations between the Palestinians and an Israel that is rewarded for its obstinacy by a broker unabashed in its bias.

Not only will moving the US embassy sound the death knell of the peace process, it will impact negatively on US interests -- economic, political and security -- across the Arab region. Arab keenness on an active American role in a peace settlement stemmed from the belief that the US is a credible broker, a belief that will be shattered should the US bow to pressure from the American Zionist lobby and move its embassy to Jerusalem. For such a move can only be interpreted as a willingness on the part of Washington to sacrifice its wide-ranging interests with the Arabs for the sake of much more limited interests with Israel.

Not only will the US ruin its relations with the Arab world, but it will have irresponsibly opened the doors to a violent backlash against both the US and Israel. And the costs are likely to be high. Already, in Lebanon, Hizbullah, declaring that Clinton's threat to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem underlines the fact that it is not an honest broker, vowed that a Jerusalem-based embassy would be reduced to rubble, and that the diplomats would be returned home in coffins. The same threat was echoed by several Palestinian opposition groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Such threats have heightened tension and instability in the region.

In such an atmosphere anything could happen. One cannot exclude the possibility of a wider-range armed conflict, or at the very least a state of no-war-no-peace, which is in nobody's interests.

Any move of the American embassy to Jerusalem will mark a final abandoning of the dream of peace in the Middle East. In its wake ripples of violence and armed conflicts will spread, leading to a dangerous deterioration in regional security which, in this age of globalisation, will impact internationally. When security in one region, especially a region as vital as the Middle East, deteriorates, repercussions inevitably spread, and in a manner that the US, even as the world's sole superpower, is unlikely to be able to contain. International markets will react negatively, economic growth will be constricted, the free flow of investments hampered and the oil trade will be thrown into disarray, an ideal backdrop for the emergence, perhaps, of a new international polarisation.

Clinton's statements, if acted upon, can only bring in their wake a series of developments that are patently in the interests of neither the US nor Israel. Rather than succumbing to frustration, and issuing emotional statements, it would be far more constructive for the American president to concentrate on pushing the peace settlement forward by building on whatever positive aspects the Camp David negotiations may have revealed. For although negotiations broke down before a framework agreement could be signed, some positive aspects undoubtedly emerged from Camp David.

The Israeli position still needs to move a long way before any compromise can be reached. Tragically, the American administration missed an opportunity to play a constructive role, encouraging Barak to be really courageous and recognise inalienable Palestinian rights pertaining to final status issues, top among which is the issue of Jerusalem. That would have opened the way for an historic Arab-Israeli peace settlement. Yet instead of pursuing the more difficult path, instead of taking the bull by the horns, Clinton chose to lay the pressure and blame on the Palestinians, as if they were responsible for Israel and America's lack of vision, responsible for Hillary's electoral difficulties, rather than the victims of both.

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