Ramallah, West Bank — Saying he feared attacks by Islamic extremists who have created a bloodbath in Algeria, Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat pleaded with representatives of the American Jewish Committee to help him revive the stalled peace talks with Israel.
“We are in need of an outside push — both of us,” said Arafat. “We are in need of mediation to rebuild again confidence between both of us. Maybe American mediation, Moroccan mediation, Arab mediation from [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak or [Jordan’s] King Hussein.”
Asked by AJCommittee president Robert Rifkind whether the U.S. was not already playing that role, Arafat said, “Not yet. … We hope.
“We are looking for serious [mediation]. We are in need of it. You can’t understand how much we are suffering,” he said. “In Gaza the standard of living is very bad. In the West Bank it is not like Gaza, which is horrible. They are at the red line of starvation in some places in Gaza. For this we are looking for a solution.”
Arafat said he was faced with two choices: to proceed with the peace process that 88 percent of the Palestinian people elected him to pursue, or let the region be plunged into conflict by Islamic extremists who have killed 65,000 in six years.
“If not me, all of us will pay the price,” Arafat warned. “The model of Algeria will control.”
Arafat’s comments were in contrast to those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told the AJCommittee the next morning in Jerusalem that the way to break the stalemate in the peace talks was through direct negotiations.
“We have to sit down face-to-face with Arafat and myself and talk and talk and talk,” he said. “[The late Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat came here and said: ‘No more war, no never, never; no more bloodshed.’ He didn’t say, unless you will give me such and such. No, he just said no more war.
“I believe the Palestinians have an opportunity now that has eluded them for many years — an agreement based on reciprocity and security. It is my hope we can achieve it,” Netanyahu said.
But he said the Palestinians continually violate the Oslo peace accords while Israel has complied with them, such as redeploying in Hebron, releasing Palestinian prisoners and announcing the first phase of a three-phase withdrawal from the West Bank — which the U.S. agreed with but the Palestinians deemed insufficient. Netanyahu stressed that the Palestinians are mistaken if they believe Israel will withdraw from 95 to 98 percent of the West Bank.
“If we don’t have security zones, we can’t defend the country,” he said.
And the prime minister pointed out that the Palestinian Authority has total control of the seven largest Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza in which “98 percent of Palestinians live. The other 2 percent are nomadic Bedouins.”
Netanyahu also painted a rosier picture than Arafat of Palestinian life, saying there were more Palestinians working in Israel last year than at any time since the intifada a decade ago. He said that 63 percent of the Palestinian budget is derived from work performed in Israel.
In the AJCommittee meeting with Arafat, the Palestinian leader spoke of all the doors the Oslo Accords had opened for Israel since they were signed in 1993. But that has all changed, he said, since the election of Netanyahu in May 1996 because he is making a “very serious effort to derail the peace process.”
“Excuse me, I have to be very frank with you. At the end of the day it is a loss for all of us — the consequences of Netanyahu’s policies,” he said.
Arafat, aside from a trembling jaw and snow white hands, appeared in good health, contrary to a few weeks ago when he reportedly was in poor condition while in Washington to meet with President Clinton. Arafat had a firm handshake and seemed at ease during the 90-minute meeting in the third floor of the red-carpeted building he calls home here.
A large color picture of the Dome of the Rock hung on the wall behind him as 15 representatives of the AJCommittee’s board of governors sat in chairs around the room. At Arafat’s left elbow was his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. Other Arafat aides and advisers, including Hanan Ashrawi, were also present.
During the meeting Arafat, who wore his traditional military uniform and keffiyah, pointed out that the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks had included nine committees that have not met in months.
“Why?” he asked. “Let us work. Even if there are no results, let us continue to dialogue. How can this be done? By more mediation, more push from outside for both of us.”
But Netanyahu told the AJCommittee that several of the committees were on the verge of agreement and had been ordered recessed by Arafat to “create an artificial climate of crisis.”
During the first hour of the meeting with Arafat, the Palestinian leader deflected criticism by Rifkind of his steady release of convicted terrorists, inflammatory statements and failure to curb anti-Israeli protests. When the AJCommittee president complained that he had seen television coverage of schoolchildren taught to hate Israelis, Arafat looked astonished.
“No one mentioned it to me,” he said. “It never happened. Give me the name of the school [so I can] punish the teachers. I’m not going to punish the students.”
Ashrawi at one point said that if the AJCommittee can get “Netanyahu to stop settlement activities, we will sit down and talk for a long time. [By building settlements], he is laying the foundation for conflict and undermining peace efforts.”
If the settlement construction stops, she said, “we can speak without pressure or coercion and feel that the peace process is not being bulldozed.”
Netanyahu insisted that the Oslo Accords place no restrictions on settlement building.
“Israel, which keeps the Oslo Accords, is charged — including by some of our own people — with violating them, and the Palestinians, who aren’t keeping the accords, are not. Why is that?” he asked.
Toward the end of the Arafat meeting the atmosphere became tense when Arafat spokesman Marwan Kanafani charged that Rifkind was repeating questions he had raised two years earlier and Erekat asked what the AJCommittee was doing to help the peace process.
“All we are trying to do is make peace with Israel,” Erekat said. “What are you doing other than coming with your list?”
An angry Rifkind shot back, “That’s unfair. My colleagues and I have come here tonight to understand what you had to say.”
“How can you help?” asked Erekat, the Palestinians’ minister of local planning and its chief peace negotiator.
“We’ve done all a private organization can do and we intend to continue to create a climate in which the peace process can continue,” Rifkind replied. “I don’t think it’s fair to say we are here in an unhelpful mode.”
A few minutes later, AJCommittee executive director David Harris interrupted to tell the Palestinian leaders that they were speaking with the “moderate community of the American Jewish people.”
“We are people of good will,” Harris said. “We’re not here to debate and have the judges decide who’s the winner.”