Bill Clinton may have saved his very worst for last. With remarkable--even for him--self-absorption, as he tap-dances toward the exit he is pursuing as his crowning legacy something that only the cynical or delusional could call a "final" Middle East "peace agreement." In three weeks Clinton will be gone, leaving intensified Middle East chaos for others to cope with.
Israel's Ehud Barak has resigned as prime minister, triggering Feb. 6 elections that polls indicate he will lose in a landslide. For him, the long term is five weeks. Yet by then he hopes to have achieved a "permanent" solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is now in its sixth decade. Yasir Arafat founded the Palestine National Liberation Movement, committed to Israel's destruction, when Eisenhower was president and Ben-Gurion was Israel's prime minister. Through 14 Israeli prime ministries and nine U.S. presidencies, Arafat has remained so committed.
It has come to this: Clinton has asked Barak--who has a negligible constituency, and who has never asked Israeli voters for a mandate for anything remotely resembling the dangerous menu of territorial and other concessions he already has offered Arafat--to dismantle Israel's capital by ceding to Arafat sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Clinton also has asked Barak to surrender to Arafat sovereignty over the holiest place in Israel's capital, the Temple Mount, location of the Second Temple, destroyed in A.D. 70.
Arafat is affronted by the offer because it is conditioned on his forsaking the "right of return." That is the claimed right of up to 4 million people, who left Israel during its violent birth pangs in 1948, to return to their homes. Imagine identifying the possessors of this right, and the possible permutations of it.
Today about a million Palestinians remain in what are propagandistically called "refugee camps." In 1945 there were many millions of refugees and other displaced persons in Europe, many in camps. By 1950 this problem was essentially solved. Why, 52 years after the failure of the Arab war to kill the state of Israel in its infancy, are there still camps populated by the children, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren of people displaced in 1948? Because Arafat and other Arab leaders use these festering sores to foment irredentist extremism.
Acknowledging a "right of return" would be, for Israel, demographic suicide. That right is integral to Arafat's aim, the destruction of the Jewish state. Insistence on the right is tantamount to root-and-branch rejection of the supposed goal of the post-Oslo peace process--"two states for two peoples." That process has been a fiasco because it has assumed that Arafat simply wants to govern a Middle Eastern Belgium--a small bourgeois nation located on whatever territories he, with American help, can extort from Israel. This assumption requires those who hold it to constantly deny that Arafat means what he constantly tells Arabic-speaking audiences--that "with our blood and our martyrs we will redeem Palestine." Last Wednesday, taking time out from deliberations about the Clinton-Barak offer, Arafat expressed optimism about one day seeing "a Palestinian boy or a Palestinian girl raising the flag of Palestine over the walls and churches and minarets of Holy Jerusalem." Which is to say, over all of Jerusalem.
Writing in the London Times Literary Supplement, Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says, "It is not a rhetorical exaggeration to speak of a peace psychosis, for that is what psychotics do: they impose their own imaginings on others, persuading themselves... in this instance, that after a lifetime of struggle, Arafat wanted to end his days as a compromising negotiator, rather than as a conqueror." As evidence that Arafat still sees himself as a conqueror, Luttwak reports that in 1998 a Palestinian editor of a newspaper published in East Jerusalem was kidnapped by Arafat henchmen, held for a week and beaten. His offense? He printed on page three rather than page one an article, written by an Arafat flack, comparing Arafat to the conqueror Saladin, who wrested Jerusalem from the Crusaders.
Barak's surreal 18 months of ignoring all such evidence has given Israel the worst governance in its history, as he has emboldened Arafat by making concession after concession in the hope that the recidivist liar would recognize Israel's right to exist. Until now Barak seems never to have met a concession he would not consider and soon offer, and evidently he seriously considered Clinton's latest and most reckless proposals for appeasing Arafat. But on Friday, in the aftermath of another terrorist bomb attack in Tel Aviv, and in the context of his plunge in the polls, he said Israel "never" would "transfer sovereignty of the Temple Mount--the anchor of our identity." At last, a sticking point.
The United States has cast itself as "honest broker" between the only democracy in the region and those avowing their determination to destroy it. And the future of the Palestinian people is prefigured in the corrupt and violent thugocracy--the Palestinian Authority--that currently misgoverns the West Bank (per capita GNP, $2,300) and Gaza (per capita GNP, $1,000).
In Washington an Israeli diplomat who shares Barak's thinking stoutly insists he does not "trust" Arafat. But Arafat is utterly reliable. He can be trusted never to keep an agreement and always to be candid about his ultimate objective, possession of all of Palestine--meaning the annihilation of the "Zionist entity." The diplomat serenely--and surreally--says optimism is integral to Zionism. Actually, Zionism was born of profound pessimism about the ability of European Jews to achieve fulfillment or even safety without a national homeland, and the Zionist state was born of history's severest instruction in pessimism--the Holocaust. Pessimists are realists who worry that, for the portion of world Jewry gathered in Israel, history may have saved its worst for last.