The Clinton Years:
U.S. Policy Toward Israel and Palestine, Part Two,
On October 19, the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) condemned Israels excessive use of force. The UNHRC also called for a commission of international inquiry. Israel, however, adamantly refused to cooperate. Nevertheless, international support for such a commission was strong, as were criticisms of Israels inordinate violence, from Amnesty International, the Israeli human rights organization Btselem, and, according to a December 12 Haaretz article by Amos Harel, even key members of the [Israeli] defense establishment are increasingly convinced that Israel has been frequently using excessive force against the Palestinians. Despite overwhelming evidence of Israels unwarranted use of deadly force and continuous demands by top Palestinian officials for the creation of a commission of inquiry, former President Bill Clinton acceded to Israels wishes and worked hard to ensure that only an innocuous, symbolic committee would be formed. Moreover, the Clinton Plan he put forth in December for a conclusion of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not a just solution. His proposals are overly sympathetic to Israel, and are far short of what Palestinians could accept.
Undermining the UN Inquiry:
On November 7, the U.S. preempted movement at the UN for an international commission of inquiry by convening its own international commission. The five member, U.S. led committee would be chaired by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell. Mitchell has been a strong supporter of Israel and a top recipient of pro-Israel PAC money. He also waged a vicious campaign in the Spring of 1990 against Secretary of State James Baker, when Baker accurately stated that the settlements ringing Jerusalem were in the Occupied Territories. In addition to Mitchell, the commission is composed of former U.S. Senator Warren Rudman, former Turkish president Suleyman Demirel, Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjorn Jagland, and European Union representative Javier Solana. Such a commission is unlikely to be balanced.
On a December visit to the region, Mitchell and other commission members reassured Israels Prime Minister Ehud Barak: Were here to help, not to pass judgments. They avowed that the commissions purpose was to restore calm and restart negotiations. The Israeli government was not entirely pleased, but expressed its gratification that the committee would not be taking a judicial approach and had no intention of serving as a tribunal. Of even greater satisfaction to Israel was Mitchells decision that the committee would conduct its work entirely from Washington, relying on material submitted to it by Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). It would have no local headquarters, and carry out no investigations on the ground. Israeli journalist and author Meron Benvenisti aptly termed it a committee of moral disgust, and wrote: The committee will become one more instrument for stifling any initiative for examining the actions of Israeli security forces and for uncovering the truth lurking behind the propaganda smokescreen.
Still not sufficiently content, Israel went to great lengths to dissuade the United States from allowing the Mitchell commission to begin its work before Israel had an opportunity to calm the situation. Once again, Washington assented to Israels wishes and sent it a series of soothing messages regarding both the role of the commission and its terms of reference or official mandate. Moreover, Washington exercised its muscle in the UN to prevent the passage of a Security Council resolution that would have created a genuine commission of inquiry.
In addition, on December 18, the U.S. persuaded six other Security Council members to abstain on a pending resolution for 2,000 unarmed UN observers to be deployed in the West Bank and Gaza. This victory prevented the minimum of nine yes votes required to pass a resolution, and at the same time absolved the U.S. of the need to exercise its veto and risk antagonizing the Arab states. Yet despite all of these efforts, on January 21, Israel temporarily froze its cooperation with the comparatively watered down and weak Mitchell commission.
The Clinton Plan:
On December 19, senior officials from both sides were seated at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington with the date of January 10 (ten days prior to Clintons last day in office) hanging over their heads for a conclusive settlement. Concerned about his historical legacy and hoping to preside over a final agreement, Clinton made a last-ditch effort to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the peace process.
As an inducement to the Palestiniansand for the first time since the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993Clinton presented an American plan for a final status agreement between the sides. The December proposal, however, preserves Israels basic red lines and appears as little more than another U.S. front for Israels interests. It falls far below what the Palestinians could reasonably be expected to accept, and in fact is little different than the U.S. and Israeli proposals at the Camp David summit. Nevertheless, the United States offered the bridging proposals as a take it or leave it diktat. Many points in the proposal are ambiguous and it leaves large lacunae on a number of issues. It also clearly provides room for Israels manipulation after the fact.
Additionally, according to Clintons proposals, The general principle [regarding Jerusalem] is that Arab areas are Palestinian and Jewish ones are Israeli. This would apply to the Old City as well. Yet to anyone who has visited Jerusalem, it should seem quite clear that this would not be a simple process. There is hardly a Palestinian neighborhood in which Israeli settlers have not implanted themselves. It is inconceivable that these settlersor the government that has permitted their illegal, often violent activitieswill give these neighborhoods over to Palestinian control easily.
Finally, regarding Israels allowing some number of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes through family reunification: On 1 January 2001, the Knesset discussed legislation (ahead of the bills second and third reading) to ban the right of return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel. The legislation would allow the return of a maximum of 100 refugees annually on a case by case basis. This bill would define refugees as persons who left their homes and land in wartime and who are not citizens (excluding their descendants). Clearly, whether or not this particular bill passes, Israel is extremely unlikely to permit a meaningful right of return to Palestinian refugees.
Israel, naturally, evidenced more willingness than the PA to accept this plan. Regardless, now that President George W. Bush has taken office, it is apparent that he will not take as much interest in what he would term a local conflict. His foreign policy team has made it clear that they are concerned only with American national interests in the region, which have always been related to the issue of oil and focused on the Gulf countries. Bush will therefore pay far less attention to Israel and the Palestinians than Clinton did, for better or worse.
Cheryl A. Rubenberg is Associate Professor of Political Science at Florida International University. The above text may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the author and to the Palestine Center. This Information Brief does not necessarily reflect the views of Palestine Center or The Jerusalem Fund.
This information first appeared in Information Brief No. 62, 23 January 2001.