WASHINGTON – Bill Clinton (search) could pose a striking — and promising — contrast to President Bush's efforts if he accepts the mission proposed by two would-be Democratic presidents to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, say some foreign policy analysts.
Those supporters add that considering the former president for the job helps Democrats John Kerry (search) and Howard Dean (search) send the right message about their visions for peace in the Middle East.
"Clinton would be a formidable negotiator. He has plausibility with both sides in the region, he knows the players and he knows the issues, probably better than any president — probably better than this president," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute (search), a Democratic think tank built around Clinton's political philosophies. "It would be hard to pick a better representative of American interests."
Both Kerry and Dean have publicly stated that if elected in 2004, they would consider tapping Clinton — who unsuccessfully attempted to broker two major peace accords between the embattled parties during his eight-year tenure — for the demanding diplomatic mission.
"This administration has abandoned the Middle East without any real engagement, " said Kerry campaign spokesman Dag Vega. "Clinton and others who have experience with the personalities there can help us make progress."
But not everyone has taken a positive view of such a scenario. Some experts say platitudes about enjoining Clinton are a gratuitous political gesture meant to curry favor with the former president, who is still regarded as an active leader of the Democratic Party.
"I'd say it had little to do with the Middle East peace process and more to do with the fact that Bill Clinton is the remaining glue that holds the Democratic Party together," said Mike Franc, political analyst with the Heritage Foundation (search).
"It's an indirect way of saying that the Bush team hasn't done a very good job," said Gary Schmidt, executive director of the Project for a New Century (search), a foreign policy think tank founded by neo-conservative Bill Kristol (search).
It also "assumes that the Clinton way was ever going to be successful," Schmidt added.
Clinton sought to help reach a breakthrough in the Middle East beginning with the 1993 Oslo Accords (search), a series of agreements negotiated between the Palestinians and Israelis to grant eventual and complete control of the West Bank and Gaza to a newly-created Palestinian Authority.
But talks broke down after the 1996 election of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (search), a Likud Party hard-liner, and violence in the region re-escalated.
Near the end of his second term in 2000, Clinton again sought to force progress, hosting Netanyahu's successor, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak (search), and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat (search) at Camp David. Despite a near compromise, Arafat walked out and the talks disintegrated.
Abandoning those talks gave Palestinian terrorist groups the opening to begin fighting anew, and after Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon (search), now the prime minister, angered Palestinians by visiting the Temple Mount, among the holiest of shrines for both Jews and Muslims, the Al-Aqsa Intifada, or second uprising, began.
Since September 2000, nearly 3,500 Israelis and Palestinians have died in the violence. In a speech to his nation on Thursday, Sharon announced that if the U.S.-backed "road map to peace" falters in the next few months, Israel could begin taking unilateral steps to disengage from the Palestinians, including redeploying Israeli Defense Forces to new areas and moving Jewish settlements to safer areas in the West Bank and Gaza — something he's never before stated publicly. Sharon added that he will continue with the process of constructing a wall around the disputed territories to protect Israelis from homicide bombers.
While Sharon said that all of Israel's actions will be done in consultation with the United States, the speech indicates that the Bush administration has had little success in moving the sides closer to peace.
Some observers have complained that the reason for that may be that, unlike Clinton, Bush appears less enthusiastic about attempting to broker peace in the region. Others have suggested that Bush is commanding a situation so different and more difficult than the one Clinton had to lead that the two approaches can't be compared.
"The conditions are fundamentally different today than they were three years ago, and most of that has to do with the actions of the Israelis and the Palestinians," said Ted Galen Carpenter, foreign policy analyst with the Cato Institute (search). "The Bush administration could have been as active or more active than the Clinton administration and it wouldn't have made any difference."
The current administration has been hobbled by infighting over how to approach the Middle East, while Bush "hasn't invested himself in terms of his prestige, or intellectually," said Joe Montville, former foreign service agent and a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (search).
Montville said that a prestigious envoy like Clinton, who has already invested enormous time and energy in the process, could lend power to the position. But, he added, Clinton still must learn the lessons of his own tenure — that he failed to recognize cultural and political subtleties before talks broke down, in part, because he pushed too aggressively at Camp David in order to secure his own legacy.
Montville said he believes Clinton could learn those lessons before undertaking a new mission.
"Clinton is teachable, he is a quick study," Montville said, and as a former president, "he has the stature of a supreme diplomat and peace-builder."
Vega said those characteristics led Kerry not only to suggest Clinton as a special envoy to the Middle East, but other former commanders-in-chief Jimmy Carter and George Herbert Walker Bush.
"There are statesmen on both sides of the party we could use," Vega said, adding that the Massachusetts senator recognizes the value of tapping into the authority of a former U.S. president in order to carry a message into diplomatic minefields.
But before any further talk of choosing an envoy, the candidates need to lay out their specific visions for the region, said Henry Siegman, director of the Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations (search).
"It's delusional on the part of Kerry and Dean to believe that the success of the American role in the peace process depends on the envoy," he said. "The candidates have to say what their policies are, what it is they stand for. There is a lack of honesty here and an avoidance of addressing the real issues."