Following the collapse of the Middle East peace talks at Camp David last month, President Clinton took the unprecedented step of appearing on Israeli television to shore up support for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, whose political future appears in jeopardy. Clinton's comments on a host of sensitive issues, from the future location of the American embassy in Israel to America's relationship with the impending Palestinian state, can at best be described as 'partisan' and at worst as 'reckless'.
In the interview, President Clinton warns Palestinians against issuing a unilateral declaration of statehood and threatens withdrawal of American financial aid as a punitive measure. Moreover, Clinton suggests that he might be inclined to move the American embassy, currently located in Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem - a symbolic gesture fraught with potential negative fallout.
For American Muslims, the president's recent foray in strong-armed diplomacy, coming on the heels of the failed peace summit, is striking in its insensitivity and calls into question (contradicts) our government's stated commitment to serve as an impartial broker for peace in the Middle East. By publicly siding with Barak, Clinton underscores a highly-charged issue for Muslims - America's perceived bias (over fifty years) towards Israel - best exemplified by our government's history of turning a blind eye to repeated Israeli human rights violations, construction of illegal settlements on occupied lands, and stockpiling of nuclear weapons. His remarks have already sparked outrage throughout the Muslim and Arab worlds, which have followed the developments closely.
Why the decision to move the embassy now? Ostensibly made to bolster the sagging fortunes of Prime Minister Barak, whose ruling coalition is in shambles, the remarks may serve a domestic political purpose as well. With Vice President Al Gore's presidential bid losing steam, and wife Hillary Clinton engaged in a tightly-contested senatorial campaign in New York, with its sizable Jewish population, Clinton's comments are not entirely surprising.
Political posturing in an election year is not unusual, but this may be the first time a sitting president has directly appealed to a particular special interest (in this case, the Israeli lobby) to advance his wife's political ambitions. American Muslims can only watch with dismay.
In announcing the potential embassy move, Clinton has also broken precedent with previous administrations, which recognized that such a move, while politically expedient, would invariably poison American relations with the Muslim and Arab worlds for generations and threaten/jeopardize any future peace negotiations. For this reason, successive administrations (both Democratic and Republican) have consistently resisted pressure from Congress to enact the embassy move. On a much simpler level, Clinton's remarks reflect the dismaying double standard that has plagued our government's approach to the Middle East conflicts. Even as President Clinton warns Palestinians against unilateral declarations of statehood, he takes the unusual, unilateral step of essentially recognizing Israeli annexation of Jerusalem - a move which violates international law and a host of UN resolutions that regard East Jerusalem as occupied territory, no different from Ramallah or Nablus. To American Muslims, these remarks smack of hypocrisy.
(Basil Abdelkarim is a Research Associate for American Muslims for Jerusalem.)