Clinton Visits the Palestinian Territory to Help Implement the Wye Memorandum and Netanyahu Destroys its Essence

The visit of U.S. President Bill Clinton to Gaza and Bethlehem, which took place from 14-16 December 1998, was indeed a major development from a Palestinian perspective. Clinton became the first American president ever to visit any Palestinian territory and to deal directly with Palestinian leaders and institutions on their land. During the visit, the President made many important statements, coming very close to recognizing the Palestinian right to self-determination. Among his statements, President Clinton stated that "For the first time in the history of the Palestinian Movement, the Palestinian people and their elected representatives now have a chance to determine their own destiny on their own land." He stated further that "I know that the Palestinian people stand at a crossroads; behind you a history of dispossession and dispersal, before you the opportunity to shape a new Palestinian future on your own land . . ." and that "Israel must recognize the right of Palestinians to aspire to live free today, tomorrow and forever. . . ".

The President’s visit came as a step which was agreed upon during the Wye negotiations and there is no doubt that Clinton wanted to help the peace process and to help implement the Wye River Memorandum, to which he is also a signatory. Clinton’s visit represents a clear American recognition of the existence of two sides with distinguished rights in the region and of two parties to the conflict- the Israelis and the Palestinians. In addition, the visit also ushers in a new era in the Palestinian-American relationship. Yet, how this develops and what kind of final political positions result depend on the two sides and, maybe even, upon the other parties who will try to affect the evolution of the matter. It is logical, though, to assume that the evolution will be favorable to the Palestinian side.

The American and British air strikes against Iraq, which came immediately after Clinton’s visit, cast a quick shadow over the Palestinian euphoria surrounding the visit. The Palestinian side was not able to capitalize internally on the results of the visit, in spite of all the warmth extended to the President, the First lady, their daughter and the accompanying delegation during their visit. Nevertheless, the situation can be expected to change and new positive political facts will hopefully arise in the near future.

On the other hand is Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu who, immediately following the signing of the Wye Memorandum, and especially after the first Israeli redeployment, has been trying to evade and postpone implementation of the agreement. Netanyahu and his government have tried to raise as many problems as possible with regard to the security aspect of the agreement. When this tactic did not work, they took steps that are even more dangerous, including attempting to impose new "conditions" on the Palestinian side that are not stipulated in the agreement itself. Finally, there was the Israeli government’s decision to suspend implementation of the agreement. That, in effect, has at the minimum destroyed the essence of the Memorandum, given the fact that the Memorandum does not include agreements on any new substance, but is simply an agreement on steps to facilitate implementation of already-existing agreements, which are to be carried out in accordance with a specific timeline. All the steps agreed upon in the Memorandum were to have been carried out within 12 weeks, by the end of January 1999 to be exact, probably about the same time you are reading this article.

This episode has taken the entire matter to a new level- one that places the credibility of the Israeli government on the line. It also raises a legitimate question regarding the value of reaching agreement, any agreement, with the Israeli government. The Israeli government, then, bears full responsibility for destroying the peace process and, consequently, for preventing the negotiation of a final settlement, which should have been concluded by the end of the transitional period on May 4, 1999. In this respect, the U.S. also bears responsibility, not only as the co-sponsor of the peace process, but as the superpower that has been directly involved in the work and conclusion of the Wye River Memorandum. The U.S. was and still is expected to take specific measures in fulfillment of that responsibility, especially now that the Israeli elections are not scheduled to take place until the 17th of May, which practically means that a new and functioning Israeli government will not take office until mid-June. In light of all this, the Palestinian side will have to weigh its options and will have to take the necessary steps to ensure the national interests of the Palestinian people, especially on the 4th of May 1999.