Having failed to topple Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic, Bill Clinton had to settle for Binyamin Netanyahu. In a characteristic display of partisan glee, Clinton toasted political consultant Robert Shrum Tuesday night (reports Lloyd Grove in The Washington Post) to congratulate him (and implicitly the administration) for helping the Israeli opposition bring down the prime minister Washington loves to hate.
Yet for all the gloating at the White House, there is deep trouble ahead in the peace process. A momentous shift has occurred that has almost completely eluded the radar screen of the Western media and the attention of this administration. While Palestinians, Americans, Egyptians, other Arabs and many Israelis assiduously assailed Netanyahu for this or that alleged violation of the spirit of the Oslo peace accords, Yasser Arafat went on a 60-nation diplomatic tour -- hardly a stealth campaign -- to kill the accords.
Here is the background. In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza. In the 1993 Oslo accords, Israel agreed to begin giving parts of it to the Palestinians in return for peace. The whole process was explicitly grounded in U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 endorsing this land-for-peace formula.
Fine. After years of persistence, Netanyahu manages to get most of the not-an-inch "nationalist" half of Israel to accept the 242/338 formula. What happens? For the last six months Arafat has been going around the world demanding instead implementation of U.N. Resolution 181.
What is that? An obsolete, defunct resolution passed by the General Assembly (unlike 242 and 338, not by the Security Council, and thus not even binding) . . . in 1947! It partitioned British Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. At the time, every single Arab state and the Palestinian Arab Higher Committee totally rejected 181. In fact, they invaded the area given to the Jews with the express purpose of wiping it off the map.
They failed. And now 50 years later, the Palestinians are converts to 181.
What's wrong with that? In the course of that '48-'49 war, Israel fought back. The armistice lines of 1949 ending it created the current internationally recognized (pre-'67) Israel -- an area larger than that outlined in 181. Hence Arafat's 181 ploy. Under 181, Israel would have to give up not just the '67 conquests (all of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza) but large chunks of pre-'67 Israel proper in the Galilee and the Negev. Indeed, 181 would take not only east Jerusalem away from Israel, but west Jerusalem -- entirely Jewish and always under Israeli control -- as well.
Before the Israeli elections, says Ehud Ya'ari (Middle East correspondent for Israel Television and an associate of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy), the Palestinians were preparing to go to the U.N. General Assembly to demand an explanation from Israel "on the measures it took illegally to extend its laws and regulations to the territory it occupied . . . beyond the territory allocated to the Jewish state in resolution 181."
Now, this is worse than a nonstarter. This is a peace stopper. It sabotages any possible coming negotiations. Arafat is making demands on Israel that he knows neither Ehud Barak nor the sweetest Israeli dove (say, the hapless Shimon Peres) could ever contemplate.
And yet the Clinton administration, remarkably able to take time off from Kosovo to criticize and undermine Netanyahu for this or that, was until last week silent on Arafat's gross undermining of Oslo. After all, Oslo is founded on 242 and 338, reflecting the obvious fact that 181 died 50 years ago with the Arab war on the new Jewish state.
It was only two weeks ago that the first squeak was heard. "Not relevant and not appropriate," said special Middle East coordinator Dennis Ross of 181. His reference was oblique -- he didn't even dare mention 181 -- and the characterization tepid. What mush. How about "absurd and destructive"? Al Gore, campaigning, chimed in similarly, referring to "recent talk of U.N. Security Council Resolution [sic] 181." Talk? Arafat's been on a global campaign to revive it.
Compared to the bluntness of the administration's incessant attacks on Netanyahu, the administration's soft-pedaling of 181 revealed how far into Arafat's corner it has maneuvered itself.
And with serious damage to the peace process. After all, Arafat has moved the goal posts. The 181 maneuver will make it infinitely harder for Barak to negotiate the kind of final settlement with the Palestinians that Clinton has been pushing for six years.
Why then the silence? Isn't it time for an administration that says it believes in Oslo to publicly reprimand Arafat for the 181 maneuver that undermines it? How can an administration that calls itself the friendliest ever to Israel not denounce Arafat's brazen international campaign for the territorial dismantling of pre-'67 Israel?