Saturday, May 9, 2009

US Foreign Policy in the Middle East During the Clinton Administration: A Picture of Failure in a Pretty Frame


The apex of American triumph at the end of the bipolar world order in 1990 ushered in a need for a paradigm shift in US foreign policy. In fact, it was a paradigm shift called upon by logic since the US resided on the world scene as the only military, political, and economic superpower. Nevertheless, a sense of exhaustion prevailed in America, and the American public agreed with President Clinton during his presidential campaign that it was time to concentrate on domestic affairs, or what became to be known as domestic renewal. This call for an internal focus was certainly justified given educational, health, infrastructure, and other public concerns at the time. Hence, a Cold War oriented outlook coupled with a general reluctance to engage proactively in international matters had affected Clinton’s foreign policy rather negatively.

The demise of the bipolar world order ignited a chain of dramatic political and socioeconomic events worldwide. The most prominent of these thematic changes took place in Eastern Europe. Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and many more nations realized their national potential as linked to the Western European and American democracies and market economies. These dramatic changes took place in the absence of American involvement. In the Middle East (ME), countries that had previously claimed alliance with the USSR were forced to reevaluate their stance during the Gulf War in 1991. Most of these ME countries sided with the international coalition headed by the US, hence officially starting an internal ideological shift within their respective societies. Questions about security, democratization, securing oil resources, and the security of Israel—conflicted interests by nature—further complicated an efficient US involvement[1] in the Middle Eastern region after the Gulf War.

One explanation for America’s disenchantment with international matters during the 1990s lies in the uncertainty of America’s role in the world at the end of the Cold War. Many contending visions of what that role should be competed for public and administrative attention in 1992 and 1993. One such vision was presented in 1993 by Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” Kulturkampf, or what this paper would term Huntington’s primitive call for tribalism in the West, in which America would represent the West against the rest. Despite this vision’s grandiose call for the barricades, according to Linda Miller, “Not surprisingly, theorizing at this level of meta-historical level
provides no guidelines for either the conduct of day-to-day international transaction or the management of crises.”

Other intellectuals, such as Kissinger, proposed the role of “Balancer” for the US along with other emerging powers, such as China, Japan, Russia, and Germany. Other visions proposed an American role somewhere between that of continuation as World Banker/ Policemen and world “Facilitator.” Faced with an overwhelming domestic commitment and the absence of a long-term strategy for “What America’s role should be in the world,” the Clinton administration chose to configure US domestic concerns, especially its economic concerns, into the foreign policy processes thus expanding America’s principles on the international scene. The Clinton administration opted to utilize foreign policy processes to further America’s economic interests, placing a special focus on Asia and Latin America, where such policies were perceived to yield gains that would ultimately filter into Clinton’s domestic agenda. On the international scene, this attempt to align America’s power, interests, and principles would have succeeded had it been accompanied by an equally determined and proactive foreign policy that was directly involved in matters of stability and political change in viable areas, such as the Middle East.

This paper will try to draw on the domestic and international context faced by the Clinton administration from 1993-2001 and the post Cold War/post Gulf War Middle
Eastern political context to illuminate the systematic failures of US foreign policy in the Middle East between 1993-2001. The general analysis will concentrate on the international and domestic opportunities and constraints faced by the incoming Clinton administration, which will lend itself to the political and socioeconomic discrepancies that prevailed in the Middle East during that period. The style of Clinton’s foreign policy that was conducted in the Middle East will further highlight missed opportunities and misjudgments that compounded, to the extent of leaving the Middle East by the end of 2000 in a far worse climate as far as US interests are concerned. All the while, photo ops of a peaceful PLO leader and a peaceful Netanyahu were shown while they were conducting peace talks during the Oslo Accord, while peaceful UN oil for food programs were continuing their operations in Iraq. This took place while the heads of Middle Eastern states confirmed their grip on power by guaranteeing the viability of the political status quo to their American counterparts as the only choice for a stable and controlled Middle East[2].

This paper will seek to arrive at the conclusion that the Middle East hardly qualifies as a region that is “safe to ignore” or to conduct an ambiguous foreign policy or Band-Aid diplomacy[3] towards it. Moreover, increasingly, ordinary citizens in the Middle East perceive the US as the guardian of the prevailing political systems governing them since the 1960s. An official alliance with the political and economic elite, many of whom caused lingering grievances towards the masses in the Middle East, is not an efficient
long-term strategy relative to US interests—unless such strategy will inject incremental grassroots support for reform on both the political and economic fronts while abstaining from sponsoring regime change. Stability and the preservation of US interests in the oil reserves of the region are directly linked with fostering goodwill with the masses in the Middle East.

1992-2000 Domestic and International Opportunities and Constraints facing the Clinton Administration

What amounted to being a period of victory for Western and particularly American values and principles at the end of the Cold War also was becoming a period of grave uncertainly where nostalgia for the Cold War mentality was all too common. Like any presidential period in American history, President Clinton’s staff and advisors invested tremendous amounts of effort in conceptualizing a long-term strategy for American policy, both domestically and abroad.

In order to replace the Cold War strategy of “containment,” an effort was made to encompass worldwide attraction towards democratic standards and capitalism, the best concept for which was celebrating such transformation became the “enlargement”
strategy (Lake 1993). The enlargement concept did not provide a clearer alternative for the “pro-democracy foreign policy” strategy, which was advocated initially. The enlargement strategy, as advanced by Clinton’s National Security advisor Anthony Lake in 1993, was designed to replace the urgency of protecting democracies against communism with enlarging the blue blobs on the world map. In addition to this central theme, it also advocated a harder line in cases of countries perceived as being “anti-democratic” or “anti-Western.” The course of action designed for states categorized as “anti-Western”[4] would be to “isolate them diplomatically, militarily, economically, and technologically.” Furthermore, “When the actions of such states directly threaten our people, our forces or our vital interests, we must be prepared to strike unilaterally” (Lake 1993:9). The Jackson wing in the Democratic Party, in which Samuel Huntington was a prominent figure, further emphasized a grand geopolitical vision for the United States based on fault lines between civilizations. Huntington said, “The national leadership of the Democratic Party has often lacked clear understanding and firm purpose in world affairs. But we believe Bill Clinton and Al Gore see the promise and dangers now before us” (Quoted in Moffett 1992:6)[5].

The official strategic plan defining Clinton’s foreign policy is best described by Warren Christopher during his testimony for nomination for the post of secretary of state. He stated, “First, we must elevate America’s economic security as a primary goal of our foreign policy. Second, we must preserve our military strength as we adapt our forces to
new security challenges. Third, we must organize our foreign policy around the goal of promoting the spread of democracy and markets abroad” (Christopher 1993:45).

Clinton’s doctrine further bolstered the final argument in the enlargement strategy, thus providing the legal backup for using decisive military force “to strike back unilaterally.” The economics-infused foreign policy coupled with tremendous leverage in striking back at those perceived as endangering immediate or long-term interests gave way for a surprisingly clear and simple categorization of the world and its inhabitants. On one hand, intense trade negotiations took place with Asian and Latin American countries in addition to limited economic aid to Eastern European countries. On the other hand, economic sanctions were imposed in the Middle East on Iraq, and others in the region were threatened with the same measure or with swift military action.

In many respects, the ongoing conceptualization of an American foreign policy strategy in conjunction with its economic emphasis seemed to continue with the same rhetorical material prescribed for the Cold War. This time, however, rogue states and rogue elements became the new discourse of danger (Luke 1991).

This American internal foreign policy discourse did not proceed without measurable institutional maneuvering. One of these was the Republican senate while the
other was comprised of various interest groups that had both an economic and political stake in the policies being granted.

As explained earlier, President Clinton committed himself primarily to the domestic agenda. Hence, any time allocated to international matters had to be closely related to domestic considerations. This explains the late American intervention in the Balkan civil war. Within this prescribed domestic American context, timely, measurable, and proactive responses to international matters seemed unlikely. Nowhere did this reality materialize better than in the Middle East.

On the international scene, American predominance in Europe began to wane, and the Europeans seemed preoccupied with internal matters concerning regional unity and the democratization and economic transformations occurring rapidly in their backyard. The international scene was consumed with the rapid technological process of globalization and the rapid formation of what became known as the Global Economy. The concentrated international trade negotiations led by the United States seemed to have the affect of selectively bypassing ideological particulars, especially in the case of China, to what seems to be a mutually beneficial and flexible realm. Clinton’s administration had the good fortune of negotiating in a decade during which most countries, the US included, were operating under the “giving the benefit of the doubt” mode towards the benefits of free trade. This eroded rather quickly in the latter half of the 1990s, in terms
of achieving consensus on the terms of international trade between northern and southern countries.

The role of international terrorism[6] demanded direct and focused attention from the Clinton administration. These non-state actors, and the states harboring them, were seen as delusional groups marginalized by the globalization process, groups that craved a return to ancient ways of living, hence making them appear irrational and unworthy of addressing their grievances. Compounded reactive measures to this phenomenon, complicated by limited publicity, turned out to be the decisive catalyst of the Middle Eastern scene in 2000.

The most vocally radical of these groups was Al-Qaida, with Osama bin Laden as the mentor and spokesperson of the “Afghanis.”[7] The threat posed by Osama bin Laden on the international structure, especially regarding regional Middle Eastern alliances, and the Gulf States’ governments becoming a real object of discussion in 1993, made it necessary to conceive the best eradication action possible. Bin Laden was expelled after his return to his homeland, Saudi Arabia, in 1991, and his citizenship was revoked in 1994. He took refuge in Sudan in 1991-1996 after having left military style training camps and barracks in Afghanistan, where Afghanis and their families resided.

The US government pressured the Sudanese government to expel Bin Laden, who in turn returned to Afghanistan in 1996 and allied Al-Qaida with the Taliban. Meanwhile, the Clinton administration was already involved in strategic military operations in Iraq in 1993 and again in 1998 to bolster economic sanctions and enforce the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq. The terrorist network called for an outright war against the US in 1998, after having already committed bombing attacks in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and again in 1996. 1998 saw the bombing of the US embassy in Kenya and Tanzania, after which the US responded with air strikes against Afghani training camps in 1998, and a strike against Sudan later that same year, which targeted a pharmaceutical plant[8].

What this asymmetrical reactionary warfare produced was a perceived manifestation of an ethno-religious struggle—utilized by the radical Islamic movements’ worldwide and led by Al-Qaida—to intensify anti-American sentiment, which grew increasingly intense and highly mobilized. The strategic US military air strikes provided the illusion of control while avoiding the traditional repercussions of military involvement in foreign territory. However, they did threaten US interests in the region and around the world exponentially. As noted by Secretary of State Christopher, there was a “a new threat” that would not require a different approach as far as military deterrence was concerned, unless the nature of that new threat was completely different than previous threats faced by the US. The different nature of that new threat was largely
dismissed; hence, intense regional military preparedness and reaction in the ME became a natural and logical response to a traditional understanding of “a threat to US interests.”

In parallel to these dramatic and fact-changing developments in the Middle East, intense bilateral[9] peace negotiations between the PLO and the Israeli government were taking place. Oslo I, or what is officially known as the Declaration on Interim Self Governance Arrangements, engaged in by Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Perez, was signed in 1993. Numerous studies have been conducted to analyze the real outcome of these negotiations. Many scholars of Middle Eastern and conflict resolution studies echo the conclusion reached by Cheryl Rubenberg in her book “The Palestinians: In search for a Just Peace.” Essentially, Israel never intended to withdraw from the occupied territory based on UN resolution 242 or to allow a territorially dignified Palestinian state to take shape. The Oslo negotiations, according to Rubenberg, were an Israeli effort to transfer the burden of controlling a discontented population to the Palestinian police and security forces, without recognition of the Palestinians’ fundamental rights. Her use of Israeli resources in her argument makes this thesis that much more compelling, given the documented deteriorating statistics on the decrease in per capita income, unemployment tripling between 1993-1998, and degrading health and educational services in Gaza and the West Bank during and after the Oslo accord.[10] The Clinton administration assumed the role of supervisor during these negotiations and generally became less engaged with the Oslo process, except for limited engagement in parts of the discussions. On another peace negotiation track, specifically the Jordan-Israeli peace negotiations, the US found itself much more involved. Indeed, given the likelihood of their success, its attention was well spent. The Arab Peace agreement between Israel and Jordan, signed in 1994, was a successful peace arrangement between, more or less, equals.

III 1993-2001 Post Cold War, Post Gulf War Middle East

As mentioned previously, the Gulf War forced the reality of the Soviet Union’s collapse onto the political processes of ME governments. Most Middle Eastern countries, with the exception of the PLO[11], sided with the US-led coalition during the Gulf War. Countries in the region underwent an ideological shift that produced looming uncertainty about America’s role in the region and how the regimes’ security needs could be configured with respect to future US interests in the region. The Syrian-American energized relations in the 1990s[12], apart from Al-Assad realpolitik approach to foreign policy, symbolized the drastic shifts in power configurations and the resulting shifts in interests. Notably, some advancement was reported in the Syrian-Israeli peace talks from 1994-1997.

Although these ideological shifts can be counted as a strategic opportunity for the US if taken at face value, a closer look reveals a contrary situation. Natural progression towards democracy in the region was crippled due to a multitude of factors. The security
of the regional regimes was taken as a choice with no alternative given the rise of anti-Americanism deriving from Iraq’s economic sanctions and the continued Palestinian struggle. The traditional “status quo plus” advocated by Bush senior in the ME region that would stabilize and deal with any possible problem in an ad hoc fashion, was continued by the Clinton administration. Thus, since the oil reserves had to be protected from demanding and emerging economies, traditional alignments between the US and the regimes in the Gulf States were seen as crucial. Israeli security and her right to defend herself were upheld consistently due to domestic considerations.

The economic sanctions in Iraq weakened Saddam Hussein’s regime as an international threat but kept him as an authoritative and oppressive figure on the Iraqi landscape. He was able to bypass UN restrictions on oil production and sale, which in turn supported his patrimonial practices and hold on power.

While ME societies were dealing with emerging ideological shifts and were trying to manage the vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the return of the Afghanis made another splash in an already complicated environment. The reemergence of seasoned “Islamic” fighters posed a security and existential threat to ME regimes. The ME states feared that the Islamists’ agenda and worldview might fill the vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union (which was seen as a pro-oppressed power confronting the West). In addition, however, there was a subtle sentiment shared by the
masses in the Middle East, partially invoked by these social configurations after the end of the Cold War and the Gulf War, which demanded a fresh look at the ME style of governance and government-citizen relations beyond the traditional secret service filter.

The Palestinians, who saw their livelihood deteriorate even further during the Oslo negotiations, provided a confusing image relative to the purpose of any peace negotiations. On one hand, the Palestinian Authority (PLO) was celebrating a success on the White House lawn while ordinary citizens in Gaza and the West Bank were seeing a devastating decline in their livelihoods. Furthermore, questions about representing the Palestinian interests became a current discourse among Palestinians, which might help explain the rise of Hamas—and its anticorruption claim—as a political substitute in Palestinian politics.

The Israeli attacks on Lebanon in April 1996, which killed 150 civilians, outraged governments and citizens alike in the ME region. The subsequent historic Israeli elections in May 1996, alongside simultaneous Knesset elections, ushered in Benjamin Netanyahu as the head of the Likud party and the new Israeli prime minister. A turn to the right in Israeli politics always fires up US critics in the ME region, thereby compounding both blame and frustration[13]. Israel was able to conduct hit-and-run air strikes against Lebanese and Palestinian targets throughout the 1990s—US style—while being deprived of territorial maneuverability available to US military forces. Israel was also risking the
prospect of expanding the region’s memory of lingering grievances. John Woolsey, a former director of the CIA, saw these and US military strikes as counterproductive and contended, “The problem is getting worse faster than we are getting better” (Quoted in Ottaway 1996).

Terrorism, furthermore, exacerbated the uneven economic development dilemma that plagued the 1990s. What Thurow (1992:15) prescribed as the “new administrative, economic, technological rivalry forming the basis of twenty first century geopolitics” seemed regionally bound with existing democracies, and rightfully so.

IV Foreign Policy Making During the Clinton Administration: Style and Deliverance

An interesting inquiry might be made into how the structural aspects of US foreign policy making in the ME region—which stretches back to the 1950s when the US inherited British and French legacies—is bound with informational and tactical deficiencies. A possible inquiry could also be made into the style and deliverance of US foreign policy in the region, which in turn would limit such inquisition to specific presidential periods. This paper will focus on the style and deliverance of US foreign policy in the Middle East as an indicator of the structural, informational, and tactical deficiencies that contributed to a stream of failures in the Middle East during the 1990s.

There is a distinct contrast between Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy in 1973, Carter’s Camp David, and Baker’s preparation for the Madrid peace conference, and Clinton’s foreign diplomacy in the Middle East in 1993-2001. Considering the international context in the 1990’s, ample space remains for the evaluation of the effectiveness in which US foreign policy was conducted with respect to President Clinton’s management style and administrative deliverance.

The personal traits that distinguished President Clinton’s style, as notably accounted for in Maraniss’s “First in His Class: The Bibliography of Bill Clinton,” where Maraniss contends that Clinton’s strengths were his weaknesses and visa versa. His pacifying style was indeed effective in conducting summits, yet it was counterproductive when decisiveness and reaching hard compromises were called for. He was intelligent but not focused, personable but not loyal politically, skillful but deeply self-centered, flexible but without a solid core of convictions (Quandt 2001). He was able to fascinate his many visitors from the Middle East, Arabs and Israelis alike, both convinced that President Clinton sympathized with their historical claims, especially towards the end of his presidential term[14]. A notable feature of his style, especially with respect to the Palestinian- Israeli negotiations, was his incremental approach, which counted on building confidence between the two parties, but postponed discussions about the hardest issues. Among those issues were Jerusalem, illegal settlements, and the right of return of refugees, all of which became less tractable as time passed and frustrated an increasing proportion of the ME population, who sensed deceit and short handedness in the peace negotiations.
As violence erupted in 2000 in the occupied territories, none of the subsequent meetings between Barak and Arafat seemed to convince anyone that real negotiations for peace were taking place; indeed, what unraveled at these meetings was negotiation for a truce. In October 2000, two Israeli soldiers were killed in Ramallah prompting a helicopter gunship attack. On the same day, in Aden harbor, the USS Cole was attacked killing 17 US seamen. Whether there is a direct causal instigation between these events is not known; however, what can be inferred relative to US interests in the region, is that the undercurrent of regional sympathy with the Palestinian plight was grossly underestimated.

Ambiguity during a decisive moment might have derailed a successful peace agreement between Israel and Syria. In fact, both parties had discussed principle and partial administrative issues with regard to a peace deal based on the “land for peace” initiative launched by Al-Assad. Rabin had made the offer to return the Golan Heights in exchange for a grant of peace and security by Syria. What helped these negotiations move along was the neutral and quiet Syrian/Israeli borderline. In January 2000, a draft accord was put together in West Virginia[15], despite the fact that it did not state specifically that Israel would recognize the 4 June 1967 line as the future border.

Nevertheless, in February 2000, Barak told his cabinet members that Rabin had previously agreed to withdraw from the Golan Heights to the 4 June 1967 line, and that he would not “erase the past.” This Israeli leaning, however, did not filter into the US role as a facilitator. There was an attempt to utilize international pressure on an ailing Syrian president to extract a less than desirable consent by the Syrians, which would have counted as a political success for some Clinton supporters. The ambiguous part with respect to US foreign policy was when President Clinton met with Al-Assad in Geneva in April 2000, citing “good news,” which was essentially a retreat from Rabin’s offer because it excluded certain territories that were under Syrian control before 1967. The informational and tactical gap is obvious in this case. Any consideration of Al-Assad’s demeanor and negotiating style should have led to the obvious conclusion that he would not accept a retreat from Rabin’s offer and would otherwise end negotiations, which happened after the Geneva meeting. Risking the collapse of years of negotiations between the two parties further illuminates the tactical deficiencies. President Clinton was adamant about leaving office with high marks for his efforts in Middle East peace negotiations. But what resulted was a failure that stemmed from shortsighted opportunism coupled with debilitating incrementalism and an inability to utilize expansive American regional intelligence resources to secure strategic deals. The collapse of the Syrian and the Israeli-Palestinian talks in 2000 sent the region into a spiraling downturn.

In 2000, the liberal intelligentsia in the Middle East, along with what is coined as “Moderates” in the region, had nothing to show for their pro-Western advocacy when
faced with the collapse of the peace talks and the eruption of violence in the occupied territories. Iraq’s population was paying a heavy toll under Saddam and the economic sanctions. US air strikes were a looming possibility for any territory deemed as a danger in the Middle East. This perfect storm played well into the ideology of the resistance movements that advocated violence as the only means to change the “unacceptable” status quo.

V Conclusion

No amount of courteous personal relations with statesmen in the ME region can substitute for an honest adherence to US national interests. The cost benefit analysis of ignoring, or at best pacifying grievances of this magnitude including the Palestinian plight and oppressive regimes in the ME, will reveal a different course of US foreign policy action. It is one that should be based on employing a decent amount of resources to support grassroots efforts for political and economic reform in the Middle East. Being part of creating a viable environment for the people of ME, motivating them to become invested in their respective forms of governance, is the only solution to counter contempt for America’s unchanging strategic presence in the Middle East.


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[1] Efficient US involvement as defined by securing US priority interests in the region: namely securing oil reserves and stability
[2] Revoking the democratic elections in Algeria in 1992 was an example of what has become an acceptable yet devastating strategy of “protecting democracy undemocratically” against Islamic concentrations seeking power through democratic elections
[3] A term coined by Kissinger describing Clinton’s foreign policy
[4] Or “Rogue States” as later defined by the Clinton Administration in 1994. This categorization filtered into the modes of pressuring uncooperative regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere.

[5] This period saw an increase in ethno-religious readings of Global Politics in the Foreign Policy establishment

[6] Moved to the forefront by the World Trade center bombing in 1993 and the investigation that ensued to uncover the co conspirators
[7] Arab and non-Arab fighters, who came from all Muslim countries in order to liberate Afghanistan form Soviet occupation, where shunned upon their return to their homelands after the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Many decided to dedicate their lives to liberate Muslim land from what they perceived as imperial forces (ie American military presence, which later expanded to all western citizenry).

[8] Targeting the Shefaa Pharmaceutical plant, which employed 300 people and supplied about 50% of the medicinal needs of Sudan, sighting among other things Islamists’ financial support of the pharmaceutical plant.

[9] There is an implicit assumption of equal partnership in this term “bilateral” which is a questionable implication

[10] For reference and in-depth report on Palestinian affairs during the Oslo accord consult the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs retrieved 5/1/2009
[11] One of the many unexplainable political bloopers of Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian concentrations in the Gulf states suffered tremendously as they paid with their expulsion from those hosting countries.

[12]A strategic closeness that was prompted by the Ta’ef agreement which ended the Lebanese civil war in 1989. Where Syria, the US and Saudi Arabia were the major brokers of the deal between the Lebanese factions and between Lebanese and Palestinian refuges in Lebanon
[13] When Ehud Barak was elected in 1999, he managed to convince the American administration to be even less involved in details of future peace negotiations. Barak advocated seeking agreements on principles with the Palestinians and leaving the details for later. Principles understood as Israeli security
[14]President Clinton refused any contact with the PLO until Oslo and did not publicly support a two state solution, an option that was already being considered by Perez and Barak (Quandt 1994, 2001)

[15]The draft of the peace treaty was leaked to the Israeli press Ha’aretz (English), 13 June 2000 as noted in (Quandt 2001)

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