As usual in the Middle East, only Arabs are terrorists

At Wye, both Palestinians and Israelis went home with opposite ideas of what had been achieved
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The Independent Culture
AT A PRIVATE dinner at the White House a few weeks ago, President Clinton decided to unburden himself of a few thoughts on Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister.

"I am the most pro-Israeli President since Truman," he announced to his guests. "But the problem with Bibi (Netanyahu) is that he cannot recognise the humanity of the Palestinians."

Stripped of its false humility - Clinton is surely more pro-Israeli than Truman - the President had put his finger on Mr Netanyahu's most damaging flaw, his failure to regard the Palestinians as fellow humans, his conviction that they are in some way a subject people.

Yet within just a few days he was presiding over yet another so-called "peace" agreement, which effectively places the Palestinians in the role of supplicants who must prove to the Israelis that they are worthy of being acknowledged, who must fulfil CIA obligations - for that is what Yasser Arafat's "security" duties entail - if the Israelis are to honour the Oslo agreement and make further military withdrawals from the West Bank. Indeed, the entire section on "security" in the final Wye agreement - with its references to "terrorists" and "terrorist cells" - involves only Palestinian violence. There is not a single reference to the killers who have come from the Jewish settler community, which even now calls the latest agreement "treachery". As usual, only Arabs are terrorists.

Arafat let this piece of pejorative and racist nomenclature into the final document and it is he, ultimately, who will be held to account by the Arabs for all the folly that Oslo has demonstrated. The "victory for peace" at Wye Plantation cannot obscure the fact that it represents little more than a recycling of the provisions of the Oslo agreement, a reminder of what should already have been accomplished if the Israelis - and the Palestinians - had honoured the original treaty.

So how did the US allow this to happen? Ignorance, weakness in the face of Israel's powerful American lobby groups, an intellectual idleness when confronted by issues of massive complexity - all these may provide a clue. But it is a general irresponsibility that pervades US policy towards the Middle East, and towards the Arab-Israeli "peace" in particular. Even in its basic form, both Oslo and the subsequent agreements - Hebron last year and now Wye - are doomed, because Clinton wants to be the author of a peace which he stubbornly refuses to guarantee.

From the very start, Oslo had to be an American show. The European Union was invited to commit millions of dollars to the scheme, provided it did not dare to criticise details of the agreement. The US and the US alone would oversee the "peace". Yet the moment the Israelis began to build more Jewish settlements on occupied Arab land, in flagrant violation of the spirit of the Oslo accord, the day that Mr Netanyahu announced that Jerusalem would be - despite final status talks on the subject - the eternal and undivided capital of Israel, what did Mr Clinton do?

He announced that while the US could "bring the parties together", it was for "the parties themselves" to take the "hard decisions" for peace. Thus Israel, infinitely the more powerful of the two "parties", could act as it wished within or outside the framework of the Oslo accord. Off the record, we were told of Mr Clinton's "exasperation" with Mr Netanyahu. Publicly, he was silent. Yet when it came to Palestinian violence - the wicked suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and the murder of individual Israelis - Israel could make all the running, supported by Clinton in his most lion-like mode. In Amman he called the killers "yesterday's men", while at Wye last week he was lecturing the world on the "hate" that would undoubtedly greet the latest "success" for peace.

Sloppy use of language is also one of the most dangerous aspects of the successive American "peace" accords. Clinton is good on cliche and rhetoric but lazy when it comes to points of detail. Despite all the handshakes and platitudes at Wye, for example, both Palestinians and Israelis went home with diametrically opposite ideas of what had been achieved. Mr Netanyahu was able to assure Jewish settlers that there would be no Palestinian state, while Arafat's men could persuade their few remaining supporters that another Israeli withdrawal would be another step towards statehood. And within hours, the foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, was telling a press conference in Tel Aviv that the Palestinians had to "fulfil" their security commitments before an Israeli withdrawal - itself "phased" - would even begin, something never stated in the Wye agreement.

Long-dead though Oslo is, the final tragi-comic act is now about to be played out as Mr Arafat invites the CIA to watch him round up the usual suspects and take them to his prisons where they will - if the experience of the last five years is anything to go by - be beaten, tortured or, Pinochet-style, executed in their cells. It is not difficult to understand why Arafat has agreed to this. If he goes along with Washington's wishes, if he accepts every humiliating retreat that the United States demands, and even its "bottom line" of a 13 per cent Israeli withdrawal - which has now become a phased withdrawal with 3 per cent turned into a "nature reserve" - then eventually Mr Clinton will have to force Israel to come to heel.

The latest chapter in the Pollard affair should have proved to Arafat what nonsense this is. Having secretly agreed with Netanyahu that Jonathan Pollard, the American who spied for Israel, might be released, the Israelis went public. Furious though he was, Clinton could only say that there had been "no commitment" on release - whatever that means - and confirm that he would "seriously review" Pollard's case. There will, of course, be no such gesture of mercy towards the Palestinian radicals whom Israel wants arrested, and whose capture will now be overseen by Pollard's old chums in the CIA.

Now it turns out that, despite all the talk of "40 per cent", Arafat will end up - prior to "final status" talks - with little more than 17 per cent of the land under his total control. And the issues that dwarf all others - refugees, Jewish settlements, Jerusalem - have all to be solved by 4 May. The Palestinians and Israelis, so hostile that they can scarcely speak to each other, have just 189 days to make those "hard decisions" of which Mr Clinton talks so blithely. How soon, then, before we hear the President explaining away his failure as Mission: Impossible - and blaming it on the Palestinians?