Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Once Again a President in Trouble Heads for the Middle East as Chances Fade for Arab-Israeli Peace

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Once Again a President in Trouble Heads for the Middle East as Chances Fade for Arab-Israeli Peace

Article excerpt

Once Again a President in Trouble Heads for the Middle East As Chances Fade for Arab-Israeli Peace

When President Bill Clinton arrived Dec. 12 for a three-day visit to Israel and Palestine, he had two immediate goals: To save his presidency and save the Middle East peace process. Most Washington pundits thought he would be successful with his presidency but, consumed with the shadow cast over it by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, hadn't really assessed his chances for establishing Middle East peace.

His reception during his fourth visit to Israel from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, preoccupied with his own political survival, was distant, if not actually grudging, but was generally warm from the Israeli people, who have long regarded Clinton as a friend.

By contrast, his reception on his first visit to Palestine by both President Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian people, even those who have little faith that the Israelis have any real interest in land-for-peace, was warm and enthusiastic. American flags, which might have been burned a few days earlier, waved side by side with Palestinian flags all over Gaza, with one U.S. flag so large it seemed to completely cover the control tower at Gaza International Airport. The Gaza audience warmly received Clinton's moving speech after the Palestinian National Council, once again, and convincingly, renounced clauses in the Palestine National Charter calling for the abolition of the State of Israel. Afterward, even Netanyahu pronounced himself "satisfied," although only hours later he also announced that, nevertheless, Israeli forces would not carry out their promised Dec. 18 withdrawal.

The few Americans who interrupted their morning schedules to watch the moving scenes live on television from Gaza also could not fail to note that as soon as the cameras shifted back to Washington, the talk solely concerned Clinton's seeming 50-50 chance of surviving an impeachment vote later in the week in the House of Representatives.

Clinton's eloquence aside, and whatever his chances of still being in office by the scheduled end of his second term two years hence, there is virtually no chance of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute being settled by then. The situation is grimly reminiscent of a time a generation ago when what had seemed an unparalleled opportunity to end the same problem on exactly the same land-for-peace terms was perceptibly slipping away.

In June of 1974 when President Richard Nixon went to the Middle East, I fervently hoped he would beat the odds and turn back the impeachment shadow then darkening his presidency. I was convinced that, after arming Israel to the teeth in his first term after his 1968 election victory and, literally, saving Israel from a battlefield defeat in the October 1973 war, Nixon was determined to make Israel withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza in his second term.

So were most Middle Eastern leaders. When Nixon arrived in Alexandria, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat turned out millions of Egyptians to cheer the train in which both leaders rode to Cairo. Both hoped that the sight of an American president being cheered in the streets of Arab capitals which had broken relations with the U.S. during the 1967 war would kindle some enthusiasm among Americans for what otherwise seemed a doomed presidency.

In Damascus, where I was handling press relations for the Nixon visit, I was struck by the contrast between a frequently distracted Nixon, limping with his phlebitis and gray with fatigue, and the Syrians who were visibly enthusiastic over the return of Americans to their country after a total absence of more than six years. His people's animation infected normally somber President Hafez Al-Assad, who seemed almost giddy as he offered a toast at the state banquet to the future of U.S.-Syrian relations.

"Do you think what Americans are seeing on television from the Middle East will save the Nixon presidency at home? …

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