Opportunity knocked, but Clark didn’t answer

April 14th, 2002
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At Camp David, Md. in late 2000, then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak presented Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a peace proposal of almost unimaginable generosity. Ceding point after disputed point, Barak offered Arafat nearly everything the Palestinian leader had demanded for 35 years, including joint rule of Jerusalem. Everything but the demographic extinction of Israel itself.

Peace was at hand, or should have been. Instead, Arafat rejected Barak’s proposals and bolted, effectively ending the peace process.

Last Tuesday, Alliance Leader Stephen Harper presented PC leader Joe Clark a plan to unify the voices of conservatism in federal politics. According to insiders, Harper proposed a full parliamentary coalition with Clark as deputy leader, shared caucus officers and critics’ roles, an internally democratic caucus and a commitment to run only one right-of-centre candidate in each federal riding in the next election.

The Harper plan would have strengthened the voice of the opposition in Parliament and ended the vote-splitting that is ostensibly the key obstacle to unseating the Liberals. Harper offered Clark almost everything. The PC leader rejected Harper’s proposal.

It took a long time for the world’s news media to realize what had really happened at Camp David. Seeing Arafat as sincere about peace, they were at a loss to explain his behaviour.

There’s now a strong current of opinion that Arafat never desired peace with Israel, that the peace process was a sham, that Arafat’s real agenda remains what it was when he was young, the extinction of Israel. Unknown is whether Barak understood this going into Camp David and offered so much because he was sure Arafat would never accept, hoping also to reveal Arafat as an obstacle to peace rather than a vehicle for peace.

Last Tuesday, it took Canada’s news media about five seconds to conclude Clark had been badly out-manoeuvred. But none wondered whether Harper’s proposals had been crafted as a device to test Clark’s sincerity.

Cynics within, or close, to the Alliance have never believed Clark was sincere about merging the two parties. They believed Clark could never overcome his contempt for Alliance policies, his bitterness at the “betrayal” under which the Reform party had all-but extinguished the PCs in western Canada, and his underlying fear the Alliance might have more appeal among voters. Doubters believed Clark desired only the Alliance’s extinction to clear the way for his party’s revival–with himself as leader, naturally.

Last week’s meeting suggests the cynics were correct. Harper, Clark huffed, proposed making him, the PC leader, a junior partner in the coalition. That would be as demeaning as, well, as the role Clark assigned to the Alliance dissidents in the Democratic Representative Caucus.

The leader of Parliament’s fourth-ranked party, only one seat away from losing official party status, should be glad to be deputy leader of the official Opposition. In any case, the true objectives are supposed to be ending vote-splitting and challenging the Liberals, not aggrandizing certain individuals.

And so it appears Clark is an obstacle to merger rather than a vehicle for merger. Once that sinks in among PCs, the consequences could reverberate for months.

It has also become clear Clark is mainly a tactical thinker and is addicted to political process as an end in itself. When Clark was up against the likes of Stockwell Day, these characteristics allowed him to appear clever, seasoned and even statesmanlike. But now, Clark faces someone who thinks strategically. While Clark is plotting his next move, Harper is thinking several steps ahead — a “crafty devil” in the words of National Post columnist Andrew Coyne.

Sources close to the Alliance leader tell me the Camp David scenario was discussed in planning the Harper-Clark summit. Harper’s coalition model, it is also said, was crafted to mimic the PC-DRC power structure, demonstrating a keen sense of irony and poetic justice–and making Clark’s rejection all the more tortuous.

Clark countered with what one source characterized as a “proposal for a complex consultative process with no end in sight and no commitment to arrive at any result”–a peace process, in other words, rather than peace itself. Vintage Clark.

Sources insist Harper’s offer was sincere, that he would not have been unhappy if Clark had accepted his ideas, just as Barak would no doubt have welcomed a true peace agreement. After all, Harper would have been hailed as the man who accomplished in three weeks what had eluded the two parties for four years.

But knowing Clark’s record, Harper wasn’t counting on success. Tuesday’s meeting was, in other words, a thorough Barak-ing of Clark.

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