An Open Letter to Bill Clinton
Now that the election is over, the feeling of What next? is certainly lodged on your mind. During the campaign, you and the electorate rightly chose to frame the race around one issue: the economy. This choice, however, put all the demands of the global picture on the back burner and now there is the danger of problems boiling over, particularly in the Mideast.
And while it's true that the Republicans left you a big mess to clean up in Washington and elsewhere, you still have major responsibilities as President-elect to the world outside America.
One of the few things that the Not-So-Fabulous Bush and Baker Boys did not screw up was bringing the Israelis and their Arab neighbors to the negotiating table.
But that was a year ago, and for Bush, getting re-elected with Jim Baker's help was more important than letting Baker do his job in the Mideast. Now it's time for your new administration to send the right signals to all parties involved in Mideast negotiations.
On a good note, the day after you took office you specifically said in your statement that you want to see "continued progress in the Mideast peace talks."
It's your task to ensure that these talks progress substantially; after a year of the participants haggling over the shape of the table and the color of the drapery, it's time that you prod these talks along. Here are some tips based on the constraints you face and the possibilities you have.
. Your Administration should clearly define and enunciate the fundamental principle that underlies these peace talks. Both sides realize that any discussion of peace entails trading (some) land for peace. We all know it, it's your job to just say it. Needless to say, you need not specify which lands should go to whom and on what date; that's for the negotiators to work out.
. Recognize the dual claims of nationhood within the land that exists between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Realize that little real progress will be made between Israel and her neighbors without a negotiated agreement that grants a gradual shift to autonomy and self-rule for the Palestinians.
. The one possible exception to this is a potential Israel-Syria peace. Though it's probably not in the best interests of everyone, it is still possible that Syrian President Assad will make a separate deal with Prime Minister Rabin. Itamar Rabinovich, the chief negotiator for Israel (with Syria) since Labor won last June, has done an excellent job in moving the Israel-Syria talks forward.
Nevertheless, proceed cautiously on this one. Assad's Syria is still on the list of countries supporting terrorists, and supporting him outright would make your promise to not "coddle" dictators a dubious one. Furthermore, both Syria's and Iran's continued arms buildup require skillful diplomacy to balance each other.
Should a deal be worked out, there is still a constructive role for you to play. If (or, more likely when) the Israelis partially withdraw from the Golan Heights, the U.S. can serve as armed observers to ensure that the transition and/or interim period is orderly and peaceful.
Remember--it is more important for the U.S. to ensure that all negotiations proceed successfully. By allowing the Syrians to duck out, you're giving Assad more time and resources to tighten his grip on Lebanon and achieve regional hegemony. (If Hezbollah continues its attacks on Israeli towns and villages, the chances of this separate peace emerging are decreased somewhat.)
. Retract your silly campaign promise to object to any formation of a Palestinian state.
Strategically, your rhetoric offers no incentive to the Palestinian delegation to negotiate peacefully. As Cabot Professor of Social Ethics Herbert C. Kelman, a specialist in negotiations, pointed out, "Those Israelis who favor withdrawal from the territories are now basically thinking about some form of a Palestinian state as the best arrangement...so it's silly for the U.S. administration to make a policy that opposes Palestinian statehood outright."
. Tactically, it makes no sense for you to oppose something which ultimately, you have little control over. Moreover, most Jewish groups both in America and in Israel are prepared to accept Palestinian self-rule so long as it's not at the expense of Israeli security.
. Appoint a high-level envoy to the peace-talks to demonstrate your commitment to the talks. A special emissary with the prestige of either former President Carter or Jim Baker will show you mean business.
Judith Kipper, a Mid-East expert at the Brookings Institute, favors appointing Carter and calls him a "superb choice" because of his ability and readiness to hear all sides. You shouldn't forget that Carter's enormous contribution to the Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt was due in part to his relative evenhandedness and his meticulous attention to detail.
Baker, on the other hand, has been conducting shuttle diplomacy for the last 18 months and has a familiar rapport with the leaders in the region. The big question is whether Baker would cross party lines and accept an offer of a short-term position as a special emissary.
My guess is that he would accept for one of two reasons. First, his shot at the presidency in '96 was substantially weakened by a Democratic victory; if he could somehow facilitate dramatic progress at the talks, his credit as a diplomat would rise markedly, thus increasing his political capital. But if he's concentrating right now on how history will appraise his Washington experience and perhaps winning a Nobel Peace Prize, accepting the offer to be a special envoy would be the right choice. He has little else to do except go fishing.
Most importantly, both Baker and Carter have a reputation of fairness among all sides and should be competent enough to act as a presidential surrogate while you and Al concentrate on fixing the economy. My personal recommendation would be Carter, if only because he's much more of a mensch.
Finally, make sure that your sources of advice and counsel on this issue are as broad as the ones you consult on other issues that concern you. The most important thing a president requires is free-flowing information channels so that all ideas are well-represented.
Don't just rely on Marty Indyk, Michael Mandelbaum and Tony Lake for advice--as smart as they may be. Academics and policy experts may be bright, but a president needs to get people from many fields of knowledge too, i.e., medicine, religion, law, business and technology.
Of course, there's no way that the U.S. can solve any of these problems on its own. The dual threats of violent Islamic fundamentalists and hypernationalist Israelis persist daily. Your task here is to assist others to do what you did during the campaign: marginalize the fringe further and reclaim the center. That's not a small task in a region where moderation is the acknowledgement of another's right to exist.
Ultimately, the parties have to work things out for themselves. But now is the time for you to actively engage the participants with a display of your enthusiasm, empathy, and intellect. Peace be with you.