Lame duck to dead duck

WHILE IT is still not clear on the eve of the American elections just who will be elected president of the United States, one thing is certain: Bill Clinton’s ability to shape and mold American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, is over. The truth is that six months before any national vote an American president is transformed into a “lame duck.” His views are ignored and his ability to affect change is crippled. But the situation becomes even darker after an election, when a “lame duck” president becomes a “dead duck.”

This is no less true for Bill Clinton, whose attempts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian settlement are now widely criticized as ineffective and wrong-headed. According to pro-Israeli political pundits, including columnists like The New York Times’ William Safire (“Despite what the UN says, and despite what our own Secretary of State says, this violence was precipitated, promoted and prolonged by Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians,” he said in one column”) and The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer, Clinton badly miscalculated Yasser Arafat’s commitment to peace and misunderstood his willingness to compromise on fundamental principles.

But US Middle East experts outside of the administration (people like former Ambassadors William Quandt and Andrew Kilgore, to name just two) have a far different view. Clinton’s mistakes over the last few months were not the result of any miscalculation or misunderstanding; instead, Clinton’s failure was one of perception. He simply did not realize the depth of frustration among the Palestinian people over the lack of progress in the peace process. The critique is surprising precisely because it is accurate.

The result of this criticism – coupled with the shock over the anti-Israeli protests in the West Bank and Gaza – has been a deep rethinking of the peace process by President Clinton on down and a scaling back of expectations for progress towards a final settlement. This is why it is unlikely that Yasser Arafat’s meeting with Clinton this Thursday, or Barak’s with Clinton the following Sunday, will yield any tangible results. Clinton will simply urge both leaders to calm the situation as a prelude to resuming talks sometime in the near future. Clinton is widely expected to tell Arafat that he will speak with Barak about the possibility of deploying an international force to protect Palestinians from Israeli guns – but no one here takes that proposal seriously.

That Clinton is a dead duck president, and will be unable to affect foreign policy effectively and credibly after the November 7 vote is underscored by the sour mood of Clinton State Department appointees. Middle East staff experts, including chief Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross, former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and Ross assistant Aaron Miller, have already begun to look for new jobs. The Bush administration is, not surprisingly, intent on making a clean sweep and bringing in Middle East experts schooled in the politics of the region under George Bush’s father and Secretary of State James Baker. The same holds true for Al Gore, who wants to distance himself as much as possible from what most are beginning to view as the clear failure of the Clinton policies.

The Bush State Department

George Bush’s State Department would look quite different from Bill Clinton’s – and it is unlikely to make the same mistakes. Just one week prior to this week’s election, the Bush campaign debated whether it should criticize Madeleine Albright for literally running after Palestine President Yasser Arafat during talks in Paris, pleading with him to not leave the negotiations. Major American newspapers described Albright’s move as “inept” and “embarrassing.” The Bush campaign decided not to criticize Albright because, as one Bush staffer noted, “We’ll be in the State Department soon enough and then she’ll be gone.”

Bush has come close to openly criticizing Clinton’s Middle East policy. While saying that he believes that he should remain silent on the Middle East while the administration tries to make peace, he adds that he believes that the US can seem “overanxious” in its attempts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

Aside from this, however, Bush has been subtlety signaling that his policies would be far different than those of Clinton, and his top aides have made no secret of their belief that Clinton has mishandled the Israelis. At issue is Clinton’s decision to keep Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk as his two chief negotiators. “It is not that these men are biased,” a high-level Bush official told me last week, “but you have to wonder what Israel would say if our two chief negotiators were Palestinian Americans.”

Bush is widely expected to appoint Colin Powell as his Secretary of State. Powell is a known supporter of Israel, but he has shown impatience with the Israeli leadership in the past, especially during the American war against Iraq. So, for that matter, have Dick Cheney, Bush’s running mate, and George Bush’s father’s Secretary of State, Jim Baker, who once gave a two-word sentence in answer to Israeli concerns – a first word beginning with ‘F’ and a last word that was “Israel.”

Bush is not expected to be that outspoken, but his policies are likely to be more patient, more deliberate and heavily influenced by his father. George Bush, the former president, is known for his tirades against the Israeli leadership, especially on Israel’s insistence on building new settlements. As president, his son is likely to focus on these same practices.

The Al Aqsa Intifada and the American media

Israel’s supporters in the American Jewish community have been closely monitoring the American media for any signs of anti-Israel bias. While it might come as a surprise to readers of the Palestine Report, many prominent Israelis, including high level officials of Israel’s Ministry of Information believe that Israel “lost the media war” in the first two weeks of the uprising.

The Palestinians have made great strides in influencing public opinion in America, and it is very disturbing to us,” one of these officials said. “We were surprised by this success and very unprepared for it. We did not think there would be a media war over the Palestinian uprising. We assumed that the US media would be on our side. This was a terrible miscalculation by us and we paid heavily for it.”

The Israeli government was especially concerned with the continuing coverage of the shooting death of a 12-year-old Gaza child as his father protected him. The Israeli government struck back, protesting to American media outlets that the shooting was an accident and planting columns in American newspapers accusing Palestinian mothers of purposely sending their children into the line of fire.

The media offensive has had little effect – American newspapers (even those with a large Jewish readership) continue to stress that of the 200-plus deaths following Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount “the vast majority of them are Palestinians.” The Israelis have reportedly targeted CNN, in particular, as a news outlet that is biased in its reporting – noting that the international news network has two Palestinian reporters working in the Middle East.

The Clinton administration’s weakness on Israel – and clear impatience with the Israeli leadership – was in full view just days before the national elections, when a White House briefer refused to comment on a report issued by the American-based group, Physicians for Human Rights. PHR released a report condemning the Israeli military for purposely aiming at the heads and torsos of Palestinian children during street demonstrations. The report resulted from on-the-scene assessments made by PHR doctors.

When asked for a response to the study the White House spokesman issued a terse statement that rehashed the US position that violence from both sides needs to stop to allow the peace process to be resumed. The reporter, whose columns appear in an Israeli magazine, was clearly frustrated by the canned answer. After the news conference he cornered the White House briefer: “What should I tell my readers?” he asked. The answer from the staffer was preceded by a look of disgust – “Tell them to tell their government to stop shooting children.”