During the lamest duck days of his presidency, Bill Clinton hustled to cobble together a series of under-the-wire executive orders and pardons, but he was unable to secure The Grand Prize: a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Though he continued to preach piously to Israelis and Palestinians about the need to make tough sacrifices, Clinton harbored no illusions about his chance for success. Nevertheless, he'd always been a risk-taker, and wouldn't it have been nice to leave behind a legacy headlined by something other than Monica? A Nobel Peace Prize wouldn't have been too shabby, either.
Ironically, Clinton entered office with no intention of getting involved in that foreign policy black hole known as Mideast negotiations. Several years ago, a source close to the president informed me that Clinton had been defending Israel staunchly against those who demanded that the Jewish state make large-scale concessions, only to have Yitzhak Rabin enter covert talks with the Arabs and concede far more than Clinton had deemed reasonable. Initially angry with Rabin, but ever the adroit politician, Clinton jumped on the peace-talk bandwagon and attempted to maneuver his way into the driver's seat.
Rabin's protégé, Ehud Barak, offered to relinquish even more territory and power to the Palestinians than any Western diplomat -- or Rabin -- would have believed feasible. And Barak continues to give ground despite receiving nothing in return, agreeing to "marathon" talks in Taba because he's struggling to salvage a political career brought down by staggering ineptitude.
And the third player in this Levantine chess game?
Yasser Arafat, ever adroit, directs his minions to violence as he digs his heels in and demands more. And gets it. The Palestinian leader is at the top of his game. Barak and his supporters in the Israeli left are in severe denial.
Working as a psychologist, I learned about the curative value of denial. Sometimes, you just need to put on blinders in order to go on. In a sense, our very existence is a grand denial. Death is inevitable, but constant awareness of that certainty and the resultant crushing anxiety would make life unbearable. So we turn away from dark truism and live out our days in joyful delusion.
But despite its protective value, denial can be dangerous, even fatal: The alcoholic who convinces himself that one more wee nip can't hurt as he gets behind the wheel of his car is courting disaster. So is the chain smoker who shuts his eyes to dark spots on x-rays, or the victim of domestic violence who keeps excusing the punch in the eye as an aberrant fit of hubby's bad temper.
Denial practiced in the political sphere often leads to doom of monstrous proportions. Hitler spelled out his intentions in "Mein Kampf" years before taking power. Joseph Stalin wasn't the least bit coy about his plans for world domination. Yet attempts were made to appease both dictators, and the result was unprecedented global horror.
Until recently, dysfunctional denial on a national scale has operated for some time in the collective consciousness of a large segment of the Israeli people. The initial concepts of peace promulgated by Rabin were grounded firmly in reciprocity, but once the Israeli left gained ascendancy, any Israeli who tried to talk about reciprocity or demanded that Arafat make good on any of his promises was denigrated as an enemy of peace. But after witnessing the Ramallah lynching, the destruction of Joseph's Tomb and the torching of the oldest Jewish synagogue in the world, the mosaic-floored beauty in Jericho, as well as the rest of the nonstop violence orchestrated by the Palestinian Authority, Israeli public opinion has finally shifted away from grand delusion and has embraced realpolitik.
Will the conversion endure?
Arafat is banking on the fact that it won't as he continues to demur diplomatically while sanctioning murder. But despite his history as a terrorist and a despot, on one level Arafat is an honest man. Arafat has made no bones about his intentions: the total dissolution of the Jewish state and its replacement with yet another Arab-dominated Mideast dictatorship. During his contacts with American and European opinion-makers, Arafat has claimed to desire nothing more than democratic self-determination for the Palestinian people.
A prime example is his recent "60 Minutes" interview with Mike Wallace, during which Wallace abandoned his usual pit-bull interviewing style, and, in a rather bizarre change of persona, sat back as Arafat pontificated righteously. However, when Arafat's reign has been anything but democratic and when he and his representatives communicate to their own people in Arabic, the message is anything but peace-loving.
To wit: Palestinian Authority Minister of Planning Nabil Sha'ath's Oct. 7 interview with the Arabic television channel, ANN: "The Palestinian people never ceased during seven years of negotiating from bursting out into intifadas against Israel and from saying its words in ways different from the way of the negotiating table."
Or this, from Hassan Al-Kashef, director-general of the P.A. Information Ministry, in a daily Al Ayyam newspaper column last October: "The only way to impose our conditions is inevitably through our blood."
And consider this sermon from Ahmad Abu Halabiya, member of the P.A.-appointed Fatwa Council and former acting rector of the Islamic University in Gaza, broadcast live on P.A. television: "Have no mercy on the Jews, no matter where they are, in any country. Fight them, wherever you are. Wherever you meet them, kill them. Wherever you are, kill those Jews and those Americans who are like them. ... We will not give up a single grain of soil of Palestine, from Haifa and Jaffa and Acre."
Halabiya and other Palestinian leaders talk about Jews, not Israelis, because this is a religious, not an ideological war, and when militant Muslim expansionists rail against America as "the great Satan," they are referring to Christianity. Perhaps most chilling is the P.A.'s exploitation of children as front-line warriors. Recently, I viewed a taped segment of the P.A.'s version of "Sesame Street," in which an adorable Arab boy of 7 or 8 stood up and declared himself ready and eager to die as a martyr in the holy war against the Jews. Both the Disney characters standing in the background and the child's teacher applauded enthusiastically. Bert and Ernie this wasn't.
The real reason Arafat won't accede to Barak's offers is that he wants nothing less than the whole pie.
Clinton and Madeleine Albright -- she of a lifetime of "forgotten" Jewish identity -- couldn't have cared less about any of this: They craved Rose Garden ceremonies and -- that obnoxious pop-psych fiction -- "closure." If Israel had been destroyed in the process -- ho hum, let's move on to the next foreign policy challenge.
But Barak and his supporters should know better, and though aware intellectually of the P.A.'s true intentions, they have remained cut off emotionally, to a mind-boggling extent. This has allowed Arafat to renege on every single promise he made at Oslo and yet be rewarded with rising prestige in the Arab world, more generous concessions from Israel, and rising advocacy in Europe and the United States. More than any other president, Clinton legitimized Arafat. During the final months of his presidency, Clinton underwent a grotesque morph from Friend of the Jews to Palestinian Surrogate. The fruits of the post-Oslo era are tragic and painful: As a result of the Oslo accord, hundreds of former Palestinian terrorists newly appointed as P.A. police were armed by the Israeli army. Now, those same guns are being used to shoot Israeli soldiers and civilians. Palestinian hatred for Jews is evident; the P.A. does nothing to hide it. Yet the Israeli left denies. If Barak and his aides were a person, that person would belong on the therapist's couch.
Rabin typically brushed off questions about Arafat's intentions with the oft-quoted, "You don't make peace with your friends. You make peace with your enemy." That pronouncement has acquired a sacred gloss, but Rabin's logic was highly flawed. The truth is you can only make peace with an enemy who has decided to stop being your enemy, and nothing in the P.A.'s rhetoric or deeds lends support for that attitude shift. On the contrary, the years that have lapsed since the advent of Oslo have witnessed a hardening of Palestinian attitude, to the point where Arabic-language newspapers habitually engage in Holocaust denial, publish rabidly anti-Semitic cartoons reminiscent of the Third Reich's Der Starmer, and resurrect medieval blood libels against the Jews.
And yet it took the bloody hands of a lyncher and months of car bombings, snipings and stabbings to finally turn around Israeli public opinion. Why was Arafat's very explicit message ignored? Perhaps because resurrecting memories of the Holocaust and its burning message of genocidal hatred are as intolerable to the psyche as the inevitability of death.
Living with the constant reality that your neighbors want nothing other than to destroy you is excruciatingly painful. Israelis are weary of war and of being viewed as brutal occupiers, and, notwithstanding 50 years of oil-state-financed propaganda to the contrary, the Israeli people are peace-loving, wanting nothing more than to live out their lives on a few square miles of ancestral Jewish homeland.
When faced with cold facts, the ideologues of the Israeli left retort with: What's the alternative?
There are no easy solutions to a centuries-old religious war, but one wise alternative to the current debacle would be a gradual process contingent upon the demonstration of good will on both sides and predicated upon strict adherence to clearly enunciated criteria.
More important, peace in the region will never be accomplished unless the Palestinians learn how to function democratically. Neither Israel nor the world needs yet another Arab dictatorship.
All this adds up to a torturous process. However, failure to recognize the true intentions of Israel's enemy can result only in the attrition and eventual death of the State of Israel. No one else may care, but Israelis -- and Jews the world over -- should.
If history has taught us anything, it is that denial is often the last meal of wanton optimists.
Jonathan Kellerman is the author of 16 novels and five nonfiction books. His latest novel is "Dr. Death" (Random House). He is clinical professor of pediatrics at USC School of Medicine and clinical professor of psychology at USC's College of Arts and Sciences.