Palestinian State Of Mind
by James D. Besser
Air Force One hadn’t even touched town at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, but Jewish activists on Tuesday already were fighting over the symbolism of President Bill Clinton’s groundbreaking and controversial trip to Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.
Jewish leaders representing all points on the ideological spectrum did agree on one thing: the symbol-laden trip could be a turning point in U.S.-Israel and U.S.-Palestinian relations.
“The symbolism of the trip created a de facto Palestinian state,” said Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a group that has been critical of administration policy in the region. “It’s an entity, not a state, but they’ve created a state through their use of gestures.”
But other Jewish leaders argued that while the high-profile,
high-stakes trip represented a change in U.S. relations in the region, it could help advance the stalled peace process, even though this week’s presidential mission apparently failed to get the sputtering implementation of the October Wye River accord back on track.
The dramatic images — Clinton landing in Marine One at the brand-new Gaza International Airport and speaking before a huge group of Palestinian leaders, including many former terrorists, gathered to confirm an earlier decision revoking anti-Israel provisions of the PLO charter — were beamed around the world and into households throughout the region.
Clinton declared the trip a success after the show of hands by Palestinian delegates on the charter issue and Netanyahu’s acceptance of the gesture. But at an early morning three-way summit Tuesday at the Erez Crossing, he failed to convince the Israeli leader to proceed with the next phase in the Wye redeployments, scheduled for this Friday.
Instead, Netanyahu made it clear implementation will not advance until the Palestinians live up to other terms of the Wye agreement and renounce any intention to unilaterally declare statehood on May 4, when the Oslo interim period expires.
Washington sources say the administration has decided to cut the Israeli leader, who faces a critical no-confidence vote Monday, extra slack. On Tuesday, Clinton announced that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will return to the region in the next few weeks, and that an Israeli-Palestinian working group will continue to look for ways to bridge the still-wide gaps.
The debate over the trip’s impact on U.S. relations in the region began even before Clinton headed for home to face his gravest political crisis yet as the House of Representatives neared a historic impeachment vote.
“President Clinton is diminishing America’s traditional alliance with its loyal ally Israel, and instead is embracing a corrupt dictatorship that is harboring 15 Arab killers of Americans,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. “His speech in Gaza hints of an emerging revisionist history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
Klein echoed Netanyahu by blasting Clinton’s comments Monday to the Palestinian assembly expressing sympathy for both the children of Palestinian terrorists languishing in Israel’s jails and children of Israeli victims of Arab terrorism.
“When Clinton compares Arab children mourning their fathers’ imprisonment by Israel to Israeli children whose fathers have been murdered by Arab terrorists, that’s a serious problem with their understanding of the reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he said.
But other Jewish leaders said the president’s words and actions, while disconcerting to Jews accustomed to reflexive condemnations of the Palestinians and praise for Israel, will serve Israel’s long-term interests.
“The president spoke with an eloquent voice,” said Marshall Breger, a professor of law at the Catholic University of America and a consultant to the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-peace process group. “The most important thing he did was ask the Israelis and the Palestinians to recognize each others’ hurt and pain. That call for a mutual recognition and sensitivity is vital.”
Breger acknowledged that Clinton’s allusion to fathers of jailed terrorists and Israeli terror victims was disturbing to some.
“But every country that has sought reconciliation between people has to face this issue,” he said. “South Africa faced it; Northern Ireland faced it. There is no moral equivalence between the murderers and the murdered. But reconciliation requires that both parties look to the future, not to the past.”
Breger also praised Clinton for “speaking directly to the people of the region” but said that at home, his achievements would be overshadowed by the mounting impeachment crisis.
Other Jewish leaders expressed fear, however, that the internecine debate over the peace process is entering a new and even more strident phase.
“We’re in the process of readjusting relationships, and that will polarize the debate in the Jewish community even more,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
The shift, he said, is necessary as part of the enhanced U.S. peacemaking role. The question is how far the Clinton administration plans to push it.
“The United States has started to establish a ‘special relationship’ with the Palestinian entity. There’s nothing wrong with that,” Foxman said. “The real question that we will all be following is whether it comes at the expense of the special relationship with Israel.”
The ADL leader said the signs are mixed. Clinton showed warmth and sensitivity in his discussions with the Israeli people, he said, but a surprising insensitivity when he discussed murder victims and murderers before the PNC.
“The symbolism we saw this week had some disturbing elements. I do think our community should welcome a growing U.S. relationship with the Palestinians,” Foxman said, “but it requires us to remind the administration about the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
The Jewish community is in for an uncomfortable time as it adjusts to changed relationships that go along with America’s expanded role, said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.
“President Clinton went to Gaza and did things that could easily be construed as a presidential visit to another country,” he said. “That produces real discomfort for many of us, but at the same time it is probably necessary for the pursuit of peace.
“I don’t see an administration shift away from the strong relationship with Israel, but it will look like that, and it will make many of us, myself included, uncomfortable.”
The Clinton administration “is open to new possibilities, including Palestinian statehood,” Baum said. “Our community still believes strongly that statehood would be disastrous. That’s another source of discomfort for us.”
Judith Kipper, co-director of the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the shift toward the Palestinians does not necessarily mean a decline in U.S.-Israel relations.
“We’ve had a number of new partnerships, including with Egypt and Jordan, and through it all the U.S.-Israel relationship has gotten bigger and stronger, “ she said. “That relationship has not suffered because we are developing partnerships with other Arab parties. And it is an essential part of the peacemaking effort; for there to be progress, our relationship with the Palestinians has to change.”
But JINSA’s Neumann said the presidential mission represented one more incremental step toward sweeping, unacceptable territorial concessions.
“Yesterday we were debating about Hebron, now about 40 percent of the West Bank; soon it will be about Jerusalem,” he said. “The boundaries of the debate are changing to Israel’s disadvantage. This will make the debate even more difficult in our community.”