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Responding to Juan Cole’s Trashing of Bill Clinton

By Ralph Seliger

Recently, Bill Clinton pushed back at a heckler, defending his and Hillary’s efforts over the years to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:  “I killed myself to give the Palestinians a state. I had a deal they turned down that would have given them all of Gaza, 96 to 97 percent of the West Bank, compensating land in Israel, you name it.”  (See articles in the Times of Israel and/or Politico.)

Clinton’s articulate defense can also be regarded as spin, but I think it’s mostly correct.  The Palestinians would be hugely better off if Arafat had signed on at Camp David, or if both sides had publicly agreed to use the basis for agreement they were moving toward as a foundation for a final agreement at Taba or shortly thereafter — without the eruption of a second intifada that destroyed everything.

Prof. Juan Cole directs the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan.  To my mind, his zeal as a leftwing critic of U.S. foreign policy often goes too far, especially regarding Israel.  I left an online comment at his latest post at the History News Network, “Top 3 Signs Bill Clinton didn’t kill himself to ‘give’ the Palestinians a State.”  What follows is a refinement of my comment:

Prof. Cole seems to be unaware that the Oslo Peace Process was a process — and as such badly disrupted by the wave of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in Feb.-March 1996, leading to Netanyahu’s first anti-Oslo government.  Ehud Barak, although elected as the nominal peace candidate in 1999, was not really committed to Oslo as a process either (unlike his Labor party predecessors, Rabin and Peres).  He tried to placate and co-opt the anti-Oslo right by including a pro-settler party (the National Religious Party) in his coalition, and then he awkwardly tried to ad lib proposals at Camp David, a summit conference he arranged in desperation, without sufficient preparation.

Still, Pres. Clinton is correct that the Palestinians would have had a state if they had agreed to a deal at Camp David, or — what he doesn’t say — if negotiations were not framed by Clinton and Barak as a failure that they totally blamed on Arafat.  Negotiations did in fact continue, culminating in the more positive atmosphere at Taba in early 2001, but it was too late; events had already spun out of control.  The Intifada had begun months before, which Arafat stupidly encouraged instead of attempting to end, dooming Barak and further negotiations by ensuring Ariel Sharon’s victory in the election of Feb. 2001.

Nevertheless, by the latter part of 2005, Sharon had split with the hard right, unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza and forming his own centrist party, Kadima.  Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s successor, presided over a very promising round of negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas until 2009.  Olmert was then derailed by a corruption investigation (involving his activities when mayor of Jerusalem) and forced to resign.

He was also plagued by the vacuum left in Gaza by Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal — one filled by the extremist Hamas movement.  Periodic attacks on Israel from Gaza caused Israel’s brutal retaliatory campaigns in 2009, 2012 and 2014. They also led to Netanyahu’s return to power, and the rightwing ascendency since, under which Israel has failed to negotiate in good faith with Mahmoud Abbas.

This is all a very complicated history, but you’d think that a distinguished scholar like Prof. Cole would express familiarity with it.  There’s plenty that Israel can be blamed for, but episodes of Palestinian violence have been critical in the trajectory of these events as well.  You’d never know this from reading Cole’s one-sided writings on this subject.

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