In U.S.:Washington — Will the Middle East firmament tremble when President Bill Clinton’s helicopter sets down next week at the Gaza International Airport?
Will a troubling new era in U.S.-Palestinian relations begin with Clinton’s precedent-shattering address to 1,500 Palestinian officials, including many former terrorists, assembled to “confirm” an earlier decision striking out offensive portions of the PLO charter?
Will the president’s tour of Bethlehem just before Christmas give legitimacy to Yasir Arafat’s troubled Palestinian Authority?
These powerful images, beamed around the world, could have a huge impact on perceptions of what Arafat insists will soon be a Palestinian state.
The White House insists the trip, which will take place against the backdrop of a rising war of words between Israeli and Palestinian leaders and a surge of Palestinian rioting,
will not affect the special U.S.-Israel relationship or mute American concerns about Palestinian violations of the Wye River Memorandum signed by Israel and Palestinian leaders in October.
But Jewish leaders aren’t so sure.
“The good news is that the United States is actively and forcefully engaged,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “The bad news could be that it’s hard to balance that kind of mediating role with our traditional pro-Israel orientation.
“There’s more talk about ‘evenhandedness’; there are reports about mirror-imaging the trips to Israel and Gaza, implying that the administration is moving very close to the 50-yard-line. And that has produced concern in our community,” he said.
At the same time, a broad spectrum of community leaders is rejecting Israeli appeals for pro-Israel political pressure to convince the administration to alter Clinton’s itinerary — especially because of what some see as the imposition of new conditions on Wye implementation by the Netanyahu government.
The attempt to stoke the pro-Israel fires is being fueled by the mounting conflict over core issues such as Palestinian statehood and the status of Jerusalem, and genuine confusion over the new, closer relations between U.S. officials and the Palestinian leadership.
Israeli officials and some American Jewish leaders, Harris said, “worry that Arafat may feel emboldened because he believes America has shifted closer to his view on many of these issues. Because of that, the trip has taken on much greater meaning.”
That echoed the message delivered by Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon in a series of meetings here this week.
Sharon warned against the creation of “false expectations” in the region, and said that the impression of an American tilt toward the Palestinians could intensify the rioting that has erupted throughout the West Bank in recent days.
“I think that one of the dangers now is that the PA gets the feeling that they are totally backed by this great democracy,” Sharon said. “This feeling creates a situation of more violence.”
Sharon’s requests for a meeting with the president were rebuffed, but on Monday Clinton stopped by for a one-hour session with the foreign minister during his sessions with National Security Adviser Sandy Berger.
According to sources here, Berger gave Sharon a tongue lashing over public grumbling by members of Netanyahu’s cabinet over the upcoming visit, and suggestions that the prime minister would be happier if Clinton stayed at home.
Sharon increased anxiety in the capital by warning in a speech that Israel might annex sections of the West Bank if Arafat follows through on his threats to declare statehood in May.
Administration officials initially said the visit to Gaza to observe the action on the PLO covenant was first broached by Netanyahu during the October summit. But on Tuesday, with Netanyahu fighting to keep his fractured government together, U.S. Mideast envoy Dennis Ross said the idea came from American negotiators.
In any case, the officials say, the president’s visit does not represent a tacit acknowledgement of Palestinian sovereignty.
But supporters and opponents of the peace process both agreed that the images of Clinton in Gaza would have a huge impact.
“This is the biggest thing that’s happened to the Palestinians — a recognition of a real relationship with the United States,” said Judith Kipper, co-director of the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It represents a fundamental change in their status. I see that as a positive development.”
Robert Freedman, president of Baltimore Hebrew University and a leading Mideast analyst, said “the underlying dynamic of Wye is the alienation between Clinton and Netanyahu over the Israeli leader’s tactics — and a deepening of the relationship between Clinton and Arafat. That’s what we’re seeing with this trip. Arafat is doing everything possible to lay the groundwork for a Palestinian state; he will use the visit as a de facto U.S. endorsement of the idea.”
That explains the fierce reaction by Netanyahu and his government, and the unease expressed by many Jewish leaders, Freedman said.
Despite that discomfort, most Jewish leaders were unwilling to criticize Clinton or try to limit his travel plans. That was evident last week at a contentious meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations.
Prodded by Dore Gold, Israel’s United Nations ambassador, several participants urged the group to write a strong letter expressing concern about Arafat’s threat to declare a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital on May 4, when the Oslo interim period will expire, and about a presidential itinerary they said could bolster his claims. But others expressed a reluctance to take on the administration before the trip.
“There was agreement about Palestinian incitement,” said one participant, “but there was also concern about seeming to support what seems like the prime minister’s unilateral suspension of the Wye agreement. Many of us felt it was inappropriate for us to be publicly raising concerns with the administration when they were doing exactly what the Israeli government had previously called for — and when they were doing everything possible to keep this peace process alive, despite the deterioration of the last 10 days.”
On Wednesday, conference chair Mel Salberg and executive vice chair Malcolm Hoenlein were still working on a letter that Hoenlein said would reflect that hard-to-read consensus.
Most Jewish leaders agree that a unilateral declaration would have devastating consequences.
“It would be a deleterious development that could bring the entire region into armed conflict,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.
But closer relations between Washington and the Palestinians are inevitable if the region is in fact moving toward peace, he said — and if Washington is to play a greater role, as both Israel and the Palestinians have requested. Although the trip originally was planned to be largely ceremonial — a celebration of the Wye agreement — Clinton will now have to resume intensive personal diplomacy to overcome the latest obstacles to the peace process, said Stephen Cohen, an analyst for the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation.
“What the actions of both parties have set up is a continuation of Wye,” he said. “This will be ‘Wye in the Desert’ because each side is exploiting the unclear areas of the Wye agreement to the fullest.”
In Israel:Ramallah, West Bank — As President Bill Clinton’s historic visit to the Palestinian Authority in Gaza grew near, Yasir Arafat played gracious host to a delegation from the Anti-Defamation League this week, warmly shaking the hand of each visitor as they entered the carpeted receiving room of his West Bank headquarters.
Meanwhile, less than a mile away, bullets were flying as Palestinian rioters engaged Israeli soldiers in scenes reminiscent of the intifada. The rioters also clashed with Palestinian police, who tried to prevent them from reaching the Israeli soldiers, wounding 15 of them.
And in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government teetered on the brink of collapse.
Welcome to the Middle East, Mr. President.
Like the ADL delegates, whose driver judiciously bypassed the demonstrations that were erupting in Ramallah, Clinton is expected to take the “scenic” route during his upcoming 3-day trip to the region, scheduled to begin Saturday night.
Mindful of the president’s security, both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government are determined to keep Clinton and his entourage far from the crowds, whether they be comprised of Palestinian stone-throwers or Israeli settlers.
Much of the trip will be pomp and circumstance: the Israelis are planning a full “head of state” welcome at Ben-Gurion Airport, and the Palestinians are hanging 25,000 American flags along the dusty streets of Gaza.
Even so, it will be impossible for Clinton to completely avoid the conflict.
In the past week, tens of thousands of Palestinians have taken to the streets to protest Israel’s refusal to free prisoners who have planned or committed violence against Israelis. At least 800 prisoners and many of their supporters have joined a hunger strike that is expected to peak during Clinton’s visit.
Dozens of Palestinians, including the nephew of top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, have been injured in the clashes, as have several Israelis. An Israeli driver from the Jewish settlement of Kadim, in the northern West Bank, was wounded Monday during a drive-by shooting.
Both Israel and the United States say that the Wye peace accord signed in October gives Israel full decision-making power over which prisoners will be released — something the Palestinians do not accept.
Last week Israel said it would not carry out a further 11 percent troop redeployment from the West Bank or release another 500 prisoners — both stipulations of the Wye deal — until the Palestinian Authority ceases all types of incitement to violence against Israel, stops demanding the release of so-called “political prisoners” and renounces any plans to declare an independent state.
While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who on Monday gained a two-week reprieve for his tottering government, initially may have welcomed Clinton’s visit, media reports say he now regrets it because the visit will boost Palestinian aspirations to statehood.
Clinton is scheduled to address a Gaza City meeting of the Palestinian National Council on Dec. 14 in the first-ever visit by a U.S. president to a Palestinian-ruled area.
Officially, Netanyahu has said that he views Clinton as “a welcome visitor.” At the same time, he told cabinet ministers this week that the American trip was Clinton’s idea and that Israel had no choice but to go along with it. (American officials say the trip was planned at Netanyahu’s initiative.)
“We are concerned that some in the Palestinian camp will use the trip to shore up claims for Palestinian statehood,” Netanyahu told the BBC Tuesday.
Clinton, Netanyahu said, should use his upcoming visit “to guarantee that the Palestinians respect their obligations under the Wye agreement.”
An editorial in Tuesday’s Haaretz newspaper chided Netanyahu for his belated misgivings.
“Six weeks after he claimed credit for the visit of U.S. President Bill Clinton in Gaza, Netanyahu is conducting a chorus of war whoops by his ministers against Israel’s most supportive friend. … If the prime minister had any fears that the visit would disrupt the balance of America’s relationship with Israel, [he] had plenty of opportunities to make [his] reservations clear to the president,” the paper said.
Israel cannot stop Clinton’s visit, but it can press the president to sidestep the issue of Palestinian sovereignty. For example, the Israeli government already has requested that Clinton enter Gaza by motorcade rather than by plane, on the grounds that a presidential flight into the newly opened Palestinian airport in Gaza would be a de facto recognition of statehood. This week, White House sources insisted that Clinton would arrive via Marine 1, the official presidential helicopter, although Israeli officials were continuing to push for ground transportation.
The president and his entourage will visit Masada, a powerful symbol of Jewish resistance against the Romans, on the last day of his visit. Israeli officials offered to let the presidential helicopter fly directly to the top of the mountain, but that offer was turned down because of the difficulty in landing there.
Despite strong protests from members of Netanyahu’s cabinet, Clinton will not appear before the Knesset, White House sources said Tuesday. They added, however, that the presidential plans remain fluid. Clinton is scheduled to address a large gathering of Israeli dignitaries at a Jerusalem convention center, and he will be feted by his Israeli hosts.
The Palestinians, for their part, are viewing Clinton’s visit as the Israelis fear — recognition of their dreams and hopes for a state of their own.
“We hope that Mr. Clinton will be happy in Palestine and that he will solve our problems while he is here,” said Ramallah resident Fahdi Jeraba. “The visit of an American president is recognition of a Palestinian state.”
“Most Palestinians welcome the visit,” said Hussein Abdelsamd, the owner of a cookie factory here. “This is the first American president to visit Palestinian lands. He will be telling the world that the Palestinians have a country.”
Meanwhile, back at the PA’s Ramallah headquarters Monday, Arafat, looking tired and pale in his trademark keffiyah, stood at the head of a receiving line that included three of his top advisers. There were fresh flowers on the polished tables and glasses of orange juice for the guests from the ADL.
At the sometimes stormy meeting that followed, the Americans accused the PA of inciting the protesters to violence. Arafat was silent for much of the meeting, though he did tell the group, “You are not fair. … We [Palestinian officials] have been attacked.”
Erekat, his senior aide, later explained, “What you’ve termed as incitement — most of these demonstrations are directed more against us than against Israel.”
Amid all this, devising political bypass roads for Clinton during his visit may be the real challenge.