Fair Policy, Fair Discussion

January 9, 2010

In Hillary’s rug market

Filed under: US-Israeli relations,Washington's diplomacy — Helena Cobban @ 10:12 pm

Special U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell is due to make yet another of his (thus far notably unremarkable) tours around some portions of the Arab-Israeli arena during the days ahead.  And presumably in preparation for that trip, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton yesterday rolled out in public the latest version of the administration’s position on Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking.

What she said in public there yesterday, during a press conference with visiting Jordanian foreign minister Nasser Judeh, tracks with what she has been telling high-level U.S. interlocutors for the past couple of weeks now, which means it is probably not just her latest “flash in the pan.”

According to that article by the WaPo’s Glenn Kessler, Clinton said,

that the United States would seek “an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles” two competing visions: “the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.”

And on Jerusalem, this:

Clinton… tried to stake out bridging language on Jerusalem, which the Israelis think should be considered Israel’s “undivided” capital. “We believe that it is possible to realize the aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians for Jerusalem, and safeguard its status as a symbol of the three great religions for all people,” she said…

I disagree with with Kessler. What Clinton was uttering in her speech was not the U.S.’s own “bridging language” on these matters, but rather, a very preliminary attempt by her to characterize the opening positions of the two sides– but without expressing any of Washington’s own distinctive views, “bridging” or otherwise, on these issues or, equally importantly, the principles on which the U.S. would be basing its own determinations on these matters.

So just how would Sec. Clinton seek to “reconcile the two competing visions” on any of these matters?  As of now, we still don’t have a clue!

… It’s fairly depressing to contrast the free-floating, not-principles-based way that Clinton deals with these issue in 2010 with the way that her predecessor, Sec. James Baker, addressed exactly the same issues more than 18 years ago, in the letter of assurance (PDF) he provided to the Palestinians members of the joint Palestinian-Jordanian negotiating team that participated in the Madrid Peace Conference of October 1991.

In the 1991 letter, Baker stressed that,

the United States continues to believe firmly that a comprehensive peace must be grounded in United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of territory for peace. Such an outcome must also provide for security and recognition for all states in the region, including Israel, and for legitimate political rights of the Palestinian people.

He explicitly stated that, “The United States believes that there should be an end to the Israeli occupation.” That was good…  But he went on immediately to say that this, “can occur only through genuine and meaningful negotiations”

H’mmm.  Well, 18 years later, we’ve seen how far “negotiations”– as endlessly touted and promoted by Washington, though with ever less stress on the all-important principles of international law on which any negotiations should be based– have led us toward, or rather, away from, the goal of securing a final-status peace.

So there were both good and bad things in the 1991 Baker letter… But compared with the extremely anodyne– or even, distinctly counter-productive– comments that Sec. Clinton made yesterday, the Baker letter looks almost breath-takingly bold and visionary.

Including, when Baker wrote this:

The United States does not seek to determine who speaks for Palestinians in this process… Only Palestinians can choose their delegation members, which are not subject to veto from anyone.

Back in 1991, of course, the “hot button issue” within the U.S. system regarding Palestinian representation was that the pro-Israel lobby still could not abide the idea that it might be the secular-nationalist PLO that represented the Palestinians. Hence, Sec. Baker had to go through endless contortions– including, for example, meeting with so-called “non-PLO Palestinians like Hanan Ashrawi or Faisal Husseini– in order to keep up the charade that it was possible to avoid dealing with the PLO.  (Those interlocutors all were PLO, of course; and they took their authorization to speak with Baker, and before him George Shultz, directly from the PLO in Tunis at that time.)

Two years after Madrid, in late summer 1993, the Rabin government in Israel revealed that it had been dealing directly with the PLO for some time and was just about ready to conclude the Camp David Accord with them… And then, one of the most amusing sights in Washington DC was to see the unbelievable agility with which the whole leadership of the pro-Israel movement  in this country and all of their bought-and-paid-for members of Congress suddenly turned on a dime and ended up lining up avidly for photo ops with Yasser Arafat when he came to the Oslo Accord signing ceremony on the White House lawn in September 1993…

Now, however, we have this strong sense of “deja vu all over again”– but this time it’s Hamas that’s the anathema, while no-one in Washington worries about (or gives a damn about) the PLO any more.

But wouldn’t it be great, really, to hear a U.S. Secretary of State spell out one again that, “The United States does not seek to determine who speaks for Palestinians in this process”?

Finally, regarding this argument that U.S. diplomats have made continuously from the time of Sec. Baker (and even before then) right through to today, that the final-status peace can be achieved “only” through direct negotiations between the parties, it seems clearer than ever today that absent a firm grounding in the principles of international law, such a “negotiation” can only ever involve the lion sitting down with fangs bared in front of the lamb; and therefore that it cannot result in the attainment of a peace that is sustainable, fair, and rights-respecting.

It is, I think, the frustration of this situation that has led Henry Siegman to argue in The Nation this week that the U.S. should consider “imposing” a solution on the Israelis and Palestinians.  This is not, of course, a new argument.  (I heard it from veteran Israeli peace movement leader Naomi Chazan both in December 2008, and in February 2009.)

I’m not sure that putting it in terms of “imposing” a solution is necessarily the best approach.  Perhaps talking about returning to the international-law requirements of a fair peace would be a better approach.  Or perhaps, stressing the idea of returning the lead role in peacemaking to the Security Council, where it rightly belongs, rather than expecting the U.S. to continue bear most of the peacemaking burden alone, would be more helpful.

One way or another, though, our country has to find a speedy way out of the position of being the principal external backer for Israel’s ongoing and quite illegal project of maintaining control over, and usurping the riches of, the occupied Palestinian territories.

But I guess it doesn’t look as though  Sec. Clinton has got that memo yet.



  1. Once upon a time I had some respect for Hillary….maybe I have a half an ounce left, maybe less… Hillary’s principles come second to her politics….what is most damning on Hillary re I/P.. is she actually knows better.

    Comment by Carroll — January 11, 2010 @ 12:06 am | Reply

  2. In principle you are correct that the lead role in peacemaking belongs in the UN Security Council. Just as US conservatives are correct that the proper role for desegreation was the legislature not the courts. The courts had to do it because the legislatures were not up to the task.

    A similar problem exists with the UN, it starts with an anti-Israel bias. A first step for the UN to begin to reverse this bias would be to end the exclusion of Israel from the group system that determines membership in the Security Council.

    Israel is no more likely to receive justice from the Security Council when it is denied access to that body than blacks in the US were going to receive justice from legislatures that excluded them from participation.

    Comment by David — January 11, 2010 @ 7:13 am | Reply

  3. Speaking of being denied access, David, you know who’s not even a member of the UN? The Palestinian Authority! How likely is the UN to provide justice between one member and one non-member?

    Comment by Bill Burns — January 11, 2010 @ 8:51 am | Reply

  4. Concerning Madrid and Palestinian representation, I think it was Israel (especially PM Shamir) that objected to the Palestinians being represented by the PLO, not really the USA, even in the thrall of the lobby. The US had had official, public contacts with the PLO already for about 6 months after 1988 (terminated in 1989). Of course the UN Security Council would do a much better job than the US – and of course when it comes to deeds rather than words, the UN has a pro-Israel bias. See http://web.archive.org/web/20021209092036/www.nad-plo.org/eye/news49.html and http://web.archive.org/web/20020929125842/http://www.nad-plo.org/eye/Double%20Standards%20Report.pdf

    Comment by J K — January 22, 2010 @ 12:27 am | Reply

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