The New York congressman who visited Yasir Arafat last week said the meeting accomplished nothing, and he denounced the waning Palestinian leader as an obstacle to peace efforts.
But Rep. Maurice Hinchey would not call the meeting, unsanctioned by the State Department and condemned by Jewish groups, a mistake.
"We wanted to press him to behave in the proper way," the Democrat from upstate Saugerties told The Jewish Week in a phone interview from Athens, Greece. "But it was the same old Arafat, dealing from the bottom of the deck."
U.S. delegations to the Middle East have routinely steered clear of the Palestinian Authority leader since June, when President George W. Bush called for his ouster, dismissing Arafat as "compromised by terror" and corruption.
Hinchey and two other congressmen, both of Lebanese descent, said their intention in meeting Arafat was to encourage his cooperation with efforts to transfer power and reform Palestinian self-government. But all three were disappointed, to different degrees, about the prospects, Hinchey said.
While it turned out that providing Arafat with a much-needed photo opportunity with American officials "didn’t serve any purpose," Hinchey insisted he did not regret the meeting.
"It confirmed my belief about [Arafat’s] inability to function as a straight and honest person," he said.
Hinchey, whose district also includes Binghamton, Kingston and other parts of Orange, Ulster and Dutchess counties, joined California Republican Darrel Issa and West Virginia Democrat Nick Rahall on a mission to Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Issa and Rahall also visited Syria and met with President Bashar Assad. Hinchey said meetings with Greek leaders prevented him from going to Damascus.
Hinchey met with Arafat once before, in 2000, shortly after Palestinian violence erupted following the collapse of negotiations with Israel.
"I had promised myself [then] it was not worthwhile meeting with him again, and would not meet him again this time," said Hinchey.
He changed his mind after a meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, the newly appointed Palestinian prime minister, who has been facing obstacles from Arafat in putting together a government.
Hinchey believes that Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, approached Arafat with a list of potential cabinet members to gain his approval, and Arafat demurred.
"Not only didn’t he sign off, but he released a list to the public, undermining Mazen’s ability to function,"said Hinchey.
"When we had an invitation to meet with Arafat, we took it because of the fact that this activity was going on. … We wanted to get a sense of Arafat and what he was thinking and press him to support getting a government in place that can put the peace process back on track."
Some prominent Jewish organizations rejected that explanation.
"Outsiders can’t convince Arafat," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "The PA must take responsibility by removing him from being able to block or undermine legitimate acts of reform. It was not wise [of the congressmen] to undermine the efforts under way to bring reform and build support for essential changes, which Arafat is again blocking."
Jess Hordes of the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington office added that "the U.S. is making an important effort to marginalize Arafat, and anything that enhances his self-perceived notion of importance complicates the process of moving forward in negotiations with Israel."
Shoshana Bryen of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs said the meeting sends "a mixed message and a bad message."
"For these guys to go and pay a call on Arafat is to suggest that at least part of the United States government accepts him as a legitimate interlocutor of peace," she said.
Pro-Israel activists said Hinchey is an ardent opponent of Jewish settlements outside Israel’s 1967 borders and has a history of viewing the Israeli-Palestinian dispute from what one source called an "evenhanded" approach.
Hinchey said he considers the Israel-Palestinian dispute "the central issue to the Middle East and the most important issue with regard to establishing a more peaceful world." He said he has traveled to the region about a dozen times since he was elected in 1993, meeting with successive Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Hinchey took the latest trip to the Palestinian territories in order to meet Abbas and "size him up." His impression?
"I came away from that meeting believing that he was very different, a straight guy who can possibly take these negotiations on with further potential for some positive realization," Hinchey said.
He added that he is unconcerned about repercussions among Israel supporters in his district when he faces re-election next year.
"I think they realize anything I do in this regard is in good faith and with good intentions," Hinchey said.
Rep. Anthony Weiner, who represents parts of Queens and Brooklyn, called Hinchey "a free thinker who usually decides issues based on merits, not knee-jerk reaction."
The meetings with Assad and Arafat provided "some good PR for known terrorists," said Weiner. But, he added, "fortunately, these congressmen aren’t deciding policy for our country."