Clinton, American leadership, and the Arab-Israeli peace process

People associate the Clinton administration peace initiative in the Middle East with the aftermath of the collapse of the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, which was followed by the 2nd intifada and the Palestinian terror wave that begun in 2001.

However,  when comparing the Israeli-Arab conflict and progress toward peace made during the Clinton years, with other presidents, there is no denying that President Bill Clinton was one of the most influential and successful American president to bring Arabs and Israelis together in order and make progress toward lasting peace.  

Bill Clinton was in office between 1993 and 2001. During his presidency,  Israel signed a peace agreement with Jordan, negotiated extensively (unsuccessfully) a peace agreement with the Syrians, and made several attempts to end the armed conflict with the Palestinians. During this period Israel established many official and unofficial diplomatic and commerce ties with Arab states in the Persian Gulf and North Africa.

Since Clinton left office, the positive trend of normalized relationships between Israel and the Arab states was replaced by either no progress, or  was reversed to be in a state of neither war nor peace. In the international arena, Israel today is less liked and a lot more isolated than it was during the Clinton years; a direct result of the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

President Clinton understood that the Middle East is balancing between two alternative futures: one in which extremists, either religious or nationalist, would destabilize the region, or the other future in which Israel, its Arab neighbors, and the Palestinians would achieve a way for a peaceful coexistence.

With his enthusiasm and his personal charisma and charm.Bill Clinton was successful in facilitating the process in almost all areas except for the peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians. He later blamed the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for failing to live up to the commitments he made, and for choosing terror over peace.

Although both President Bush and President Obama invested time and effort, trying to continue the peace initiative and complete the peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, they were not successful; not even one significant achievement could be credited to either one of them.

In the next few months Israel will elect a new government. A new coalition, which perhaps will be more willing to make compromises, take risks, and find solutions to the remaining disagreements between Israel and the Palestinian.

Clearly, if Netanyahu is elected again, knowing his and Obama’s track record, the chance of anything happening is slim while both of them in power.  This is not to say that Israel should elect a left-wing or left-center government. Right-wing leaders such as Begin and Sharon were flexible and were willing to compromise as well. To make progress, the leaders of both countries must have more trust, cooperation, coordination, and personal chemistry.

The next realistic opportunity to move the peace process forward will be when America elects a new president in two years. Perhaps the next president will be more Clinton-like in his ability to move the peace process forward. What president Clinton had demonstrated is that the Arab-Israeli peace process goes through Washington: American president, skillful in the art of negotiation, combined with a will and a motivation, will make a difference. On the other hand, the peace process goes nowhere without strong American leadership.

America provides assurances, financial support, and a protective umbrella that facilitates peace. All very important aspects. However, Clinton’s personal touch was also important. He was liked, respected, and trusted by both sides. The motivation on both sides to come to an agreement was there regardless. However, he was successful in seizing the opportunity; an extremely difficult task to accomplish, considering how far apart both sides are from each other, and the negative reputation America has in the Arab world. 

America and Israel will elect their next leaders based on internal needs. Very little consideration will be given to the question of who has the best talent for driving the Arab-Israeli conflict to a peaceful resolution of coexistence. 

Fourteen years had passed since Clinton left office. The world is currently heading toward more extremism, violence, sectarian wars, and destruction. Leaving this issue to resolve itself will not work. It could bring us to the brink of a 3rd world war. It’s time to reverse this trend. A significant progress in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians could provide a shift in momentum  Let’s hope that the next American-Israeli leadership team will have the desire, talent, personal chemistry, and better success in taking us there. 

Bill Clinton singing in Shimon Peres 80th birthday

 Bill Clinton with the Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and the Palestinian leader Yasser Araft in Camp David in July 2000