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memri
February 2, 1999 No.
13

Developments in the American-Palestinian Relations

By: Yigal Carmon and Yotam Feldner*

As the end of the Interim Period draws near, new dynamics underscore the American policy in the peace process. President Clinton's historic visit to Gaza epitomized a significant improvement in American – Palestinian relations.

The Palestinian View of American-Palestinian Relations

Palestinian officials have interpreted President Clinton's visit to Gaza as a revolutionary change in American policy in the Middle East. The visit was seen, first and foremost, as a symbol of American de-facto recognition of the future Palestinian State. "The US acknowledged the Palestinians' right to self determination," stated Chief Palestinian Negotiator, Mahmoud 'Abbas (Abu Mazen), "this was explicitly stated [by Clinton] at the lunch banquet."[1]

Palestinian officials also saw the visit as the beginning of a wider change in the traditional Middle Eastern political equation, in which the US always stood by Israel's side. Abu Mazen stated that "there were many signs in this visit that the US is rapidly proceeding toward equality and neutrality between the Israeli and the Palestinian positions." [2] Palestinian Negotiator Nabil Sha'ath added, "I think that from now on there is a balance between the strategic Israeli - American alliance and the Palestinian - American friendship."[3] Palestinian Minister of Public Works and Coordinator of Relations with Iraq, 'Azzam Al-Ahmad, stated that Clinton's visit "indicates that the US is gradually beginning to shift from Israel to the Palestinians."[4]

The Palestinians aspire for a balanced American position in the Final Status negotiations. Nabil Sha'ath's vision of the potential developments in American-Palestinian relations is even more far-reaching. He entertains the possibility that "sometime in the future" the US would allow the implementation of Article 7 of the UN Charter which permits the use of force - in order to make Israel comply with UN Security Council resolutions.[5]

Palestinian Efforts to Reach American Decision-Makers and the American Public

Palestinian expectations exceed the bounds of the peace process with Israel. Until recently, official American contacts with the Palestinian leadership have been conditioned on Palestinian adherence to the peace process. Now the PLO strives to be accepted in Washington on the basis of its bilateral relation with the US. Reymonda Tawil, the Editor of the PLO's Monthly and Arafat's Mother in Law reminisces on the hard times of the past: "finally, only after the Oslo Accord, and only after the Israeli Labor party admitted that there is no solution to the Palestinian – Israeli Conflict without a direct contact with the legitimate Palestinian representatives, did the US admit that the unfortunate Palestinian is a human-being and that like the rest of God's creatures it is possible to hold negotiations and reach agreements with him."[6]

Now, senior Palestinian officials feel that in the 'new era' in American-Palestinian relations, the PA's relations with the US are no longer filtered solely through the treaties with Israel. "The fundamental change," explains the Director General of the Palestinian Ministry of Information, Hasan Al-Kashef, "is that the decision-making circles in the US are no longer inaccessible to us - starting with the presidency, through the State Department, The NSC, the Congress, and ultimately public opinion."[7]

The Palestinian leadership understands that cultivating personal ties with key figures in the American Administration will not suffice. The needed fundamental change in the traditional American policy in the Middle East, requires the support of broader circles of American decision-making, namely, the Congress, and even more important, the American public.

The working relations that were established between the Congress and the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1998 and the PA's successful policy of improving its rapport with the American Jewish organizations[8] should be seen in this context. Nabil Sha'ath commented lengthily on the effect of Clinton's visit and the new American policies on the sympathies of the American public: "The American President spoke [in Gaza] of equality, reciprocity, and balance between us and Israel. It may very well be that the Palestinians are not sensitive enough to the [importance of this] issue because we all feel superior to the Israelis in many things, but for the American culture which used to accept the [Israeli] fallacies: that it has a monopoly on pain, a monopoly on grace, and a monopoly on suffering, and that Israelis are the source of all moral virtues while we are terrorists and guilty of all problems - for that American culture, the parallelism that President Clinton created in all his speeches is tremendously important..."[9]

The American Administration's Policy toward the PLO

The American Administration's policy towards the PLO has undergone a dramatic change: While the PLO's official status is still dependent on presidential waivers of existing legislation[10] under which the PLO is still a terrorist organization, the Administration's actual policy is entirely different.

Within the month and a half following the President's Gaza trip, Clinton, Gore and Albright met with Arafat several times. All three refused to meet with either Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu or Foreign Minister Sharon. These meetings took place after the PA legislative and executive branches announced their official support of Iraq, which was two days after President Clinton left Gaza. The US also remained silent even when the Palestinian delegation to the Arab Foreign Ministers Summit in Cairo initiated pro-Iraqi amendments to the final declaration, in defiance of the American position.[11]

President Clinton himself has taken the leading role in legitimizing the PLO. Some of his statements are in absolute contrast to what, so far, has been the official American policy. In his speech at the signing ceremony of the Wye Agreement, for example, Clinton thanked Arafat for "decades and decades and decades of tireless representation of the longing of the Palestinian people to be free, self- sufficient, and at home." Palestinian officials hailed this statement as "an acknowledgment that the years of Palestinian armed struggle are not considered terrorism."[12]

While the issue of compliance with the articles of the Wye Accord is a matter of controversy between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the US was quick to unequivocally side with the Palestinian Authority. Secretary of State Albright stated, "The Palestinians have been fulfilling some aspects of what they are supposed to do in terms of their security obligations under Wye. And I think that the Israelis also need to fulfill their obligations, the agreement signed by two parties. "[13]

The political change is also reflected on the personal level. The American Administration seems much more at ease with Arafat than with Netanyahu. Palestinian officials refer to the Wye River talks as a turning point in their relations with the American Administration. "Personally," says Nabil Sha'ath, "I noticed the change in Wye even before noticing it in Clinton's visit in Gaza. The fact that Mrs. Albright received President Arafat at her home [during the 'Donors Conference'] epitomized this development." [14]

Conclusion

The American policy in the Middle East is motivated by moral as well as realpolitik considerations. The latter constitute primarily of the need to safeguard overall American interests in the region, to keep the PLO in the peace process and, at the same time, to prevent the process itself from deteriorating to an overall crisis. [Namely, policies which aim at "process management" and "crisis management."]

The American Administration is ready to upgrade the PLO's political status in order to keep it in the peace process. In other words, the US is paying in real political assets just to sustain the framework of the negotiations. The Palestinians, on the other hand, who tend to see these recent developments as an American acknowledgment of some of their 'just and legitimate rights,' realize that the US policy is based on realpolitik as well. Nabil Sha'ath, for example, when asked what motivates the American Administration to improve its relations with the PA, explained: "For the Americans, our transformation from the stage of using violence to the stage of peaceful means is of strategic importance..."[15]

*Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI. Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis.


[1] In an interview with the Israeli daily Ma'ariv that was later republished by the Palestinian newspaper The Jerusalem Times, January 15, 1999.

[2] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, December 17, 1998.

[3] Palestine Television, December 16, 1998.

[4] Al-Ayyam, December 18, 1998, see also the editorial of The Jerusalem Times, December 18, 1998: "We feel that not only the Clintons, but many Americans understand the conflict better today than ever before and do not blindly support Israel."

[5] Palestine Television, December 16, 1998. This has been a recurrent theme in Sha'ath's speeches. For example, he stated, in Al-Quds, March 3, 1998: " The US used half of the American army to threaten Iraq, but did not give Netanyahu even a slap on the wrist to make him comply with UN Security Council resolutions regarding Israel and the agreements signed."

[6] Al-Awda, January 16, 1999.

[7] Palestine Television, December 16, 1998.

[8] A future Inquiry & Analysis will examine the developing relations between the PA and American Jewish Organizations.

[9] Palestine Television, December 16, 1998.

[10] Thus, five days before the 'Donors Conference' last December in Washington, President Clinton issued an additional waiver allowing US officials to hold contacts with the PLO and its supporters until May 24, 1999.

[11] This was revealed by Coordinator of the PA's relations with Iraq, 'Azzam Al-Ahmad, Al-Ayyam, January 28, 1999. Similar American silence followed the PA's renouncing, "any form of terrorism" alluding to the American missile attack on Sudan and Afghanistan (Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, August 22, 1998.)

[12] Secretary General of the Palestinian Presidency, Al-Tayyeb Abd Al-Rahim, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, October 16, 1998, for example.

[13] January 27, 1999, at a press conference with Egypt's Foreign Minister Moussa in Cairo. State Department website: secretary.state.gov/www/statements/1999/990127.html.

[14] Palestine Television, December 16, 1998.

[15] Palestine Television, December 16, 1998. Arafat's Advisor on Strategic Affairs, Hani Al-Hassan made a similar statement: "The US knows that unless it satisfies the Palestinians, it will have no presence in the region." [Al-Ayyam, January 31, 1999.]