Clinton: A marriage counsellor reading from a cereal packet

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The Independent Online

Language is meant to liberate human beings. But President Bill Clinton's brief statement at Sharm el-Sheikh yesterday was loaded with clichés - the "cycle of violence", the idea of "moving forward" - and there were times when he sounded like a marriage guidance counsellor reading his script from the back of a cornflakes packet. He used the word "violence" or "violent" six times, the word "peace" just twice. "It will be a disappointment to some of you," he concluded - and we all knew that the "some" meant the Palestinians.

Language is meant to liberate human beings. But President Bill Clinton's brief statement at Sharm el-Sheikh yesterday was loaded with clichés - the "cycle of violence", the idea of "moving forward" - and there were times when he sounded like a marriage guidance counsellor reading his script from the back of a cornflakes packet. He used the word "violence" or "violent" six times, the word "peace" just twice. "It will be a disappointment to some of you," he concluded - and we all knew that the "some" meant the Palestinians.

For what he actually said, and what we thought he might have said when we first heard his words, were not the same thing. Like the Oslo agreement, Mr Clinton's speech sounded fair but was shot through with the kind of double standards that doomed Oslo. We heard Mr Clinton commiserating with the "tragic and terrible confrontation costing many lives and injuries" without for a moment alluding to the fact that nearly all of the lives lost belonged to Palestinians. He talked about "ending the closure", an odd phrase, because of course he left out the key fact that the "closure" was Israeli and referred - though he didn't say so - to the occupied territories.

Indeed, when he spoke about "the territories", the word "occupied" simply didn't exist in his vocabulary, thus depriving the Palestinians of half their argument: that they were a population under Israeli occupation. You would think, listening to the President's speech, the "violence" was all taking place inside Israel.

Then came his attempt to address Yasser Arafat's demand for an international inquiry into the "tragic and terrible confrontation", preferably under United Nations auspices. There would be, he claimed, a "committee (unspecified) of fact-finding on the events of the past several weeks" which would be "shared by the US President with the UN secretary general ... prior to publication". Note that word "shared". Mr Clinton will tell Kofi Annan what this "committee" has decided - Mr Annan's role will be to read the report, not to participate in its findings.

Mr Clinton said the final report would be "submitted under the auspices of the US President". In other words, the Americans, not the UN or any other international body, will publish the report. The United States, Israel's greatest and most loyal ally, will decide the committee's final report.

So much, then, for the UN's condemnation of Israel's use of "excessive force", which Mr Clinton's administration abstained from endorsing. Does anyone, let alone the Palestinians, think this report will make the same condemnation?

There was, of course, the usual plea for "restoring law and order" - how I love the way that "order" and "law" always go together. For what, exactly, is the "law" which will be applied to the appalling events of the past three weeks? As for "enhancing security cooperation", it sounds like one of those American treaties with Latin-American military autocrats whose armies regularly train with the US military.

James Rubin, the most vociferous of former US government spokesmen, said the agreement would constitute "a return to the status quo ante". But what was the status quo before the killings? It was the collapse, recognised by Palestinians and Israelis, of the Oslo "peace process" Mr Clinton still apparently hopes to rescue. As Hannan Ashrawi said: "There is no 'status quo ante' to go back to."

It was left to the Israeli spokesman Moshe Fogel to say, "The proof is in the pudding" - surely the most clichéd remark since the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, said in his frustration with Mr Arafat that "it takes two to tango".

If there was one poisoned fig-leaf for Mr Arafat, it was Mr Clinton's reaffirmation - forgotten when the Camp David peace conference collapsed and he blamed Mr Arafat - that the permanent status agreement (Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, the "right of return" of refugees) would be "based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338". But he added "and subsequent understandings". In other words, on the Oslo agreement, which nullifies the UN resolutions calling for Israeli withdrawal from occupied land,including east Jerusalem and the land taken for Jewish settlements.

All in all, then, an agreement with which the Israelis could live but which the Palestinians can scarcely sustain. No wonder Mr Mubarak said it "wouldn't meet expectations in the Arab world". If it stops the killing, the world will cheer. Even oil prices might stabilise. As a solution to the conflict, it was a miserable performance. The Israelis will realise that as clearly as the Palestinians.

So what happens today in the occupied territories - or "the territories", as Mr Clinton would have us call them? Are Hamas and Tanzim and the Palestinian police supposed to be awed by the fairness of the American President? And, let us be fair about this, are the Jewish settlers, those who live in Clinton's "territories", with their Uzi automatics and their divine right to stay on Arab lands, supposed to nod sagely when they study the American President's demand (let us suppress cynicism here) to "eliminate points of friction"?

When Mr Clinton promised to "facilitate security cooperation between the parties as needed" - note the "as needed" - are we to believe the CIA will persuade settlers and the Palestinian police to put their guns away and smile across the bullet-scarred estates at their mortal enemies? Maybe Hollywood has an answer. I doubt if the Middle East does.

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