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Déjà Vu Diplomacy

The day before George Mitchell met with Benjamin Netanyahu in London this week, in the continuing effort to meet Palestinian preconditions for new final-status negotiations, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced a plan to create a Palestinian state within two years—“regardless of progress in the stalled peace negotiations with Israel.”

For those familiar with the history of the peace process, the Palestinian announcement and its timing provided a sense of déjà vu.

In the spring of 1998, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was stalled. Prime Minister Netanyahu was seeking “reciprocity” from the Palestinians before further Israeli withdrawals from West Bank territory. Arafat was offering the umpteenth Palestinian promise to “crack down” on terrorism and agreed—“in principle”—to produce a detailed security plan in exchange for a further Israeli withdrawal that met his demands and a move to final-status negotiations.

That was good enough for the State Department, which turned to Netanyahu and told him it needed a “second yes.” Netanyahu raised concerns about the scope of the withdrawal—and Arafat threatened a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state. On April 28, 1998, Hanan Ashrawi, then the Palestinian minister of higher education, spoke at the National Press Club in Washington and said Palestinians would declare statehood in one year regardless of where the peace process then stood.

At the time, no American administration had ever endorsed a Palestinian state. A week later, as Dennis Ross was traveling to Israel to meet with Netanyahu, Hillary Clinton spoke (via satellite hookup arranged by the State Department) to Arab and Israeli teenagers attending a “peace summit” in Switzerland. In response to a student who asked about her use of the word Palestine, Hillary used the word state nine times, saying it would be “very important” for “Palestine to be a state.” In case Israel missed the significance of her words, the American embassy in Tel Aviv immediately released a report entitled “Hillary Clinton: Eventual Palestinian State Important for Mideast Peace.”

The White House said she was “not reflecting any administration policy”—only a “personal view.” But William Safire wrote in the New York Times that the explanation was “laughably implausible” and was “a calculated move by both Clintons to ratchet up the pressure on Israel” by warning that American policy might change if Netanyahu did not promptly move the process forward.

Now flash forward 11 years. A U.S. peace negotiator travels to meet with the Israeli prime minister to seek his concurrence in the latest Palestinian demands regarding final-status negotiations. The Palestinian “peace partner” announces a plan for a Palestinian state within two years without a peace agreement. The American consul general in Jerusalem, alerted ahead of time, tells the New York Times it is the first time he has seen such a “concrete plan” and that the Palestinians are working in a practical way toward their goal.

Undoubtedly, his apparent comfort with a unilateral Palestinian plan is simply his personal view.



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