It was Thursday, barely 36 hours since Barack Obama was recognized to have won the American presidency, that some editorialist at the London Financial Times sat down to do his Friday leader. It was the paper's first instructions to Obama. The previous day's commentary was a cliche: a reminder, as if neither he nor his party grasped the truism, that Obama needed to be president of the "whole" country.
So on what subject did the editors of the FT choose to exhort the president-elect? It was not on the international economic calamity about which, we may presume, the newspaper possesses some special authority. It was not directed to other domestic issues--race, health care, the environment, infrastructure, education--about which Great Britain is, if anything, far more in trouble (though less in panic) than we are. Yes, it was about foreign policy, though not about Russia and NATO or the Korean bomb or, for that matter, Iran's much more ambitious nuclear designs. Not about the corroded moral authority of the United Nations either. Or even about the confrontation between democratic political interests and moral ideals and the new Islamic militancy sweeping across West Asia to the gates of China and planting itself west, north, and south of Vienna where a Muslim siege had been rebuffed in 1683. In all of these matters, London still retains some authority as a European power and also as the seedbed of democracy itself.
But on none of these urgent matters does the FT offer any counsel to Obama. Its first counseling is about the long and tortuous dispute between Israel and the political sects and clannish tribes which aspire to (isn't it really all of?) Palestine. And what does the Financial Times advise? It is really a gimmick: Appoint Bill Clinton as "special envoy for the Middle East with plenipotentiary powers." Yes, with plenipotentiary powers, no less. How could he function without them?
A special envoy for the Middle East is an old hat idea. In fact, it is not exactly an idea and certainly not a new idea. By my count, there have been perhaps a dozen special envoys to the region in the last dozen years, perhaps more, and many of them appointed by the president of the United States as his personal representative to the disputants. Here are a few of the designees of the White House: Philip Habib, William Burns, Anthony Zinni, James Jones, Curtis Wilson. Didn't George Tenet also play this role for President Bush? And wasn't James Wolfensohn a special rep of someone or other, as well? Then, of course, there is the present special envoy of the Quartet, come straight out of 10 Downing Street to the Middle East bazaar, Tony Blair. Very important person, accomplished nothing. Someone once suggested that George Bush Sr. be appointed to this prestigious office. And someone else suggested that James Baker be the one to do the miracle of Middle East peace. The problem with the last two men is that they don't much like Jews. This might be called a disqualification.
There have also been U.N. special representatives to the conflict and the region: Count Folke Bernadotte and Ralph Bunche 60 years ago, up to Terje Roed-Larsen ten minutes ago. The E.U. has its own emissary: Marc Otte. Russia, China, Japan, and the two most sanctimonious meddlers in the region, Sweden and Norway, are always appointing special thises and thats to the neighborhood. Right now the Philippines has also sent a new person to collect frequent flyer points in Israel and the Arab capitals.
Actually, the idea that Bill Clinton become SEME (you like that? an acronym) was originally broached in the Huffington Post, which gives you some sense of how serious it is. (Irony!)
There are several reasons why the very notion should not appeal to Barack Obama. First of all, Bill Clinton is by now a very frivolous man. He is full of self-love and, thus, can no longer be trusted with an important public chore, as Obama must have noticed during the campaign. It is true that Clinton is invested in the historic struggle between Israel and the fissiparous Palestinians. It is hard to imagine that he is not still committed to the Camp David principles to which Ehud Barak committed but Yassir Arafat would not even discuss. Much blood has been shed since the fall of 2000 and Gaza was given over five years later, to also an unhappy consequence. The Israelis cannot be expected to start a negotiation with its old concessions carved in stone. Which is what the Palestinians expect for starters, and only for starters. Clinton would do anything to get the Palestinians to sign on. But that would happen--and the "would happen" is remote--if the Israelis were to sign away not only more territory but not insist on realistic conditions without which free Palestinian Gaza immediately became a base for rockets and missiles into Israel, as it has become in the last days again. Clinton once told a Jewish audience that, if Israel were endangered, he would pick up a gun in its defense. Israel would be in peril only if it yielded the concessions it gave to Clinton in 2000.
A bit more than a year ago a "special envoy" was again being widely touted. Aluf Benn and Shmuel Rosner wrote a piece in Ha'aretz calling "a special envoy for Middle East peace ... a diplomatic tool that has become a cliche, an envoy in the guise of a messiah." Which is apparently just what the FT wants. This begins with the "parameters" drawn up by Mr. Clinton in December 2000 after the collapse after the Camp David summit. Here in the FT's own words: "the creation of a
viable Palestinian state on nearly all the occupied West Bank with Arab east Jerusalem as its capital, with agreed and equal land swaps, and fair treatment for 4.4 million Palestinian refugees, largely through compensation."
Of course, this is such a skewed view of the conflict. Four and a half million refugees, indeed. Wait another few years and it will be five million and then six and seven. And, really, what about the physical security of Israel and Israelis wedged in between the hills and the sea? This is not an abstract matter. Will Tobias Buck, the FT news correspondent in Israel and perhaps the most obsessively anti-Zionist newsman for any western journalistic enterprise, at least admit that the lives and limbs of Israelis and the very peace of its society are endangered? No, he and the lead writers of the FT have not and will not.
The first prerequisite for any solution to this conflict and for the acceptance of a real Palestinian entity is that the Palestinians demonstrate concretely that they do not still yearn to vitiate a Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.