Clinton's Last Hurrah: A Bad Idea That Won't Work

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past week in the Mideast was enough to give heart-attacks to all
concerned. With only days left in office, President Bill Clinton
was desperately trying to push the Arabs and Israel into a peace
deal for which he could take credit. Israel's tough, embattled prime
minister, Ehud Barak, faces elections next month. As of now, he
seems likely to lose to Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon, a hardliner
and extreme Zionist who vows to "get tough" with Palestinians.

only man who may save Barak from defeat is none other than his strange
bedfellow, PLO chief Yasser Arafat. If Arafat agrees to the latest
peace deal being pressed upon him by partners Clinton and Barak,
then, by this weird symbiosis, Barak will probably win re-election.

so, total US support for Israel may wane. For the past eight years,
Israel has exercised unprecedented influence over the Clinton Administration,
virtually directing US Mideast policy. Unlike the Clinton team,
which was top heavy with supporters of Israel, the incoming Bush
Administration has few in evidence. Nor is Bush beholden, as Clinton
was, to pro-Israel financial contributors. To the contrary, Bush's
father, President George Bush, and his Secretary of State, James
Baker, tried to put pressure on Israel to halt building settlements.
As a result, the pro-Israel media accused them of being anti-semites.

defeat of Al Gore, who had been financed and cultivated for decades
by Israel's US supporters, is being viewed as a blow to Israeli
influence in Washington.

now faces a deep dilemma. If he does not make a deal with Barak,
then Sharon, who is hated and feared by Arabs as the potential Milosevic
of the Mideast, could win. Sharon says he will encourage more Jewish
settlements and crush the current "intifada." Many Arabs
suspect Sharon favors Serb-style ethnic cleansing of Palestinians
from the West Bank and Gaza. Sharon has long insisted that Jordan
should become the Palestinian homeland.

does not want to deal with Sharon. So what to do? The deal he is
being offered by the US-Israeli tag team is the best to date: 95%
of the Occupied Territories; maybe a slice of East Jerusalem, including
the all-important Haram al-Sharif mosque(though Barak now denies
it); fixed borders. Whether the Palestinian state will be a series
of blobs surrounded by Israeli territory and Jewish-only roads remains
uncertain. Israel will retain troops on the Jordan River for three
years. Palestine will be demilitarized and may have no borders with
the outside world.

the thorniest question, as this column has written for years, is
the 4 million Palestinian refugees (plus 400,000 forgotten Syrian
refugees from Israeli-occupied Golan). The Palestinian Diaspora,
the world's largest number of refugees, will not be allowed the
right of return to their lost homes in what is now Israel, according
to Clinton's plan. Though driven from their land in 1947-48 and
in 1967, the original refugees and their offspring will remain in
squalid camps, apparently without any substantial compensation or
hope for the future.

one suspects, longs to make a deal with Barak. They badly need one
another. But Arafat cannot enforce any lasting peace that leaves
four million Palestinians stranded. He dares not, for risk of his
own skin. So he bobs and weaves, "conditionally accepting"
Clinton's plan, waiting for a miracle to solve this impasse.

core problem appears insoluble. Though international law and the
UN call for the refugees to be returned home, there seems no possible
way Israel would ever settle even a quarter of them, though it did
find room for a million Russians, many of whom were not even Jews.
Four million Palestinians added to Israel's current one million
Arabs would make Israel a predominantly Arab state. Israel would
never permit such racial dilution. If it did happen, an Israeli
friend says, "I'd be a Jewish Palestinian!"

did offer to allow back a small number of Palestinian refugees under
the guise of "family reunification." This was to take
heat off Arafat. No one will be fooled by this ploy. The number
of Arab refugees allowed to return to the new Palestinian mini-state
may also be limited by the US and Israel.

the 11th-hour deal did go through, which is unlikely,
Israel would still be left in the catbird seat. It would retain
control of much militarily strategic land and water resources. The
resistive Palestinians would be surrounded by Israeli roads and
security forces, and policed by PLO units. The big Israeli settlements
would remain. Palestine would become a military protectorate and
economic dependency of Israel.

Barak has threatened that if the current deal fails, he will go
ahead with plans to erect high walls around all Palestinian areas,
as he says "totally separating Israeli's" from the Arabs.
This uncomfortably recalls both the walled-in Jewish ghettos of
Eastern Europe, and South Africa's "apartheid," or "separation
policy." Hopefully, it's pre-election rhetoric.

if Arafat is strongarmed into a shaky peace deal designed to salvage
Clinton's besmirched reputation, his people will reject any pact
that forecloses their right of return. The Arab states also rejected
Clinton's deal last week. King Solomon, not Bill Clinton, seems
the only person who can solve this impossible problem.

10, 2001

Margolis is foreign correspondent for the Toronto Sun.

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