By JONATHAN S. TOBIN, Commentary Magazine—
While campaigning in New Jersey on Friday for his wife, Bill Clinton was interrupted by a pro-Palestinian heckler. “What about Gaza?” the person yelled. What followed was an interesting exchange with the clearly exasperated former president that says more to inform the current attempts by both the Obama administration and the French to revive Middle East peace talks than it does about Hillary Clinton and what she might do if elected in November.
That Clinton would be heckled about the Palestinians is not a surprise. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is one of the few issues on which Sanders has not pulled Hillary Clinton to the left. She has tried, often without success, to match Sanders’ enthusiasm for massive expansions of government power and expenditures and new entitlements. But on foreign policy, she has attempted to walk a fine line between the Democratic base’s basic isolationism and her own internationalist/interventionist instincts while noting differences with her rival on temperament and experience rather than on substance. But she has not been shy about drawing strong differences with Sanders on Israel and the Palestinians.
Though she was the “designated yeller” at Prime Minister Netanyahu during President Obama’s first term, Clinton has also tried to position herself as a mainstream supporter of Israel and sharply disagreed with Sanders’ belief in U.S. neutrality and his willingness to spread canards about Israel’s attempts to defend itself against Hamas that have at times exceeded even those of the terrorists when it comes to inaccuracy.
So if Sanders’ fans are going to hound Hillary or her chief surrogate on any clear difference between them, it’s as likely to be about her not being as willing to attack the Jewish state as the Vermont socialist. That’s what happened on Friday but what Bill Clinton said in reply to the heckler’s cracks about Clinton’s unwillingness to join Sanders in condemning Israel was significant because it brought up something that is rarely discussed in the mainstream media coverage of the Middle East: Palestinian rejectionism.
While his wife has never stopped whining about the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that she blames for their problems rather than their own misconduct, Bill Clinton’s chief post-presidential complaint has been about how Yasir Arafat robbed him of the Nobel Peace Prize he was counting on. In July 2000, Clinton hosted Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in a summit at Camp David that he hoped would mark the culmination of the Oslo Peace Accords that had been signed on the White House Lawn seven years earlier. In order to secure a final resolution of the conflict, Barak went further than any Israeli leader had ever dreamed of going in terms of concessions to the Palestinians. To the delight of the Clinton administration, he was put on the table a peace offer that gave the Palestinians a state in almost all of the West Bank, a share of Jerusalem, and all of Gaza. That was essentially everything that the Palestinians wanted, the two-state solution on a silver platter with an American president prepared to back up the Israeli leader even though the plan was far ahead of what most Israelis at the time said they were willing to risk.
But instead of grabbing the opportunity with both hands, Arafat said “no.” No matter how much Clinton, who saw his Nobel hopes going down the drain, Arafat wouldn’t budge, claiming that to accept the realization of the Palestinian dream of statehood would be his death sentence. What’s more, after shocking both the Americans and the Israelis with his refusal, Arafat doubled down on the refusal by launching a terrorist war of attrition after he got home. Seizing on the flimsy pretext of outrage about Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, the Palestinians began a bloody campaign in which the Palestinian Authority police fired on the Israelis they were supposed to be cooperating with, and Hamas and Fatah terror groups competed with each in launching horrifying suicide bomb attacks on Israeli civilians. Before it was over this second intifada would take the lives of over a thousand Israelis as well as thousands of Arabs and destroy a Palestinian economy that had boomed since Oslo.
It’s also important to note that Clinton and Barak didn’t take Arafat’s no as final and kept trying in their last months in office (Clinton was term-limited, and Barak’s political fate was sealed by his failed initiative) to get him to relent. In the Sinai resort of Taba in January 2001, the U.S. and Israel tried to resolve Palestinian complaints about the generous peace terms they’d been offered by sweetening it with further Israeli concessions. Again, Arafat’s answer was no. There would be no Nobel for Clinton and no peace.
So when Bill Clinton says, “I killed myself to give the Palestinians a state,” he’s right. If they had wanted one, they could have had it. But they didn’t. Nor was Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas willing to accept a state in 2008 when Ehud Olmert offered even more generous peace terms at the prodding of George W. Bush. Since then Abbas has refused to negotiate seriously even though the supposedly hard-line Netanyahu has accepted a two-state solution (as he repeated on Thursday) and again offered withdrawal from most of the West Bank during talks sponsored by Secretary of State Kerry.
The back and forth between the former president and the pro-Palestinian heckler about Hillary Clinton’s role during the fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is interesting. Clinton did her best to restrain Israeli self-defense and brokered a cease-fire with the cooperation, as her husband helpfully pointed out, “the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt” during the period when the Obama administration was tilting toward those extremists after they seized power. Yet she has not been prepared, as Sanders has seemed to do, to excuse Hamas’s war crimes in using Gaza as a base for launching rockets at Israeli cities and terror tunnels while using civilians as human shields.
But the really important point to be gleaned from this story is that few in the international community or the press have bothered to ask why Clinton failed to give the Palestinians a state. It was not for lack of trying or, in the case of Barak, an Israeli government not prepared to take risks for peace as he declared his desire to give up settlements and divide Jerusalem. The problem was that the Palestinians were not prepared to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn. Making peace on those terms would have meant ending the conflict for all time rather than merely — as Arafat openly boasted — merely collecting concessions in a war of “phases,” that would enable them to resume fighting on more advantageous terms in the future. Even if we accepted the dubious proposition that a blood-soaked terrorist like Arafat wanted peace, the point is that if even a towering figure in Palestinian history such as he didn’t dare sign a deal accepting Israel then how could anyone else?
Bill Clinton was right on Friday when he said Israelis needed to know that the U.S. is concerned about its security in order for peace to be possible. But if Israelis regard pressure from the U.S. to demand even more concessions in the absence of a Palestinian change of heart to be insane, it’s because they remember what happened at Camp David and its aftermath as well as the ultimate results of Ariel Sharon’s unilateral surrender of all of Gaza in 2005: a Hamas terrorist state.
President Obama foolishly ignored this proof of the intentions of the Palestinians and made an already bad situation worse.We don’t know if Bill Clinton’s experience will chasten Hillary Clinton’s desire for her own Peace Prize if she becomes president or if this knowledge will ever find its way into the brain of a President Donald Trump, who also appears to lust after the glory of a deal that would end this conflict. But it should. The next president needs to avoid being fooled by the false arguments of Palestinian apologists into giving Hamas a pass for terror in Gaza. But more than that, they need to understand that the only real obstacle to peace isn’t settlements or Netanyahu but the same Palestinian intransigence that cost Bill Clinton his Nobel Peace Prize.