Posted on January 26, 1998 in Washington Watch

It was a difficult and disturbing week. What was promoted as a week of meetings crucial to the future of the Middle East peace process turned instead into a series of sideshows.

There were two main stories that dominated the week’s news. First was the on-again, off-again, then on-again invitation to Palestinian President Yassir Arafat to visit the Holocaust Museum. This was followed by the U.S. press’ feeding frenzy over President Clinton’s alleged affair with a 24 year-old former White House intern.

Equally disturbing to these events was the disgusting level to which the allies of the Netanyahu government have lowered the political discourse about Arabs and Middle East issues. This city has not witnessed such an outpouring of hate-filled diatribes in many years.

Ignored during all of this, however, were some subtle but still real indications of change which, although not the focus of significant press and political attention, should not be overlooked.

The week opened with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s arrival and the announcement that the Holocaust Memorial and Museum had withdrawn an invitation to President Arafat to pay a visit of respect to the victims of the Holocaust.

Netanyahu’s arrival was peculiar for an Israeli leader. The Jewish community turned out for a respectful but very low-key welcome. It was clear from several newspaper ads sponsored by pro-peace Jewish organizations that the Prime Minister is losing some support among the traditionally supportive Jewish community. Although they attempted to present a good public face, signs of tension were obvious.

The more rousing welcome occurred after the mainstream Jewish groups left the scene. When Netanyahu arrived at his hotel – the United States did not offer him an official Blair House welcome – he was greeted by a raucous demonstration hosted by “The National Unity Coalition for Israel” (NUCFI). The NUCFI is a group of fundamentalist Christian, right wing conservative and Orthodox Jewish organizations that strongly support Likud policies.

The podium featured the likes of Rev. Jerry Falwell and Rev. Pat Robertson, two anti-Arab, (anti-Muslim) fundamentalists, and a number of right wing politicians. Those in the audience frequently chanted “not one inch”, as a way of showing support for Israel’s hard-line settler movement. If Netanyahu’s intention was to mobilize his conservative allies against the President, this tactic both worked and at the same time backfired. Both President Clinton and Vice President Gore were furious and privately rebuked the Israeli leader. As well, many prominent mainstream Jewish leaders publicly criticized Netanyahu’s poor judgement and his bad choice of allies.

Paralleling these events was the breaking story of the Holocaust museum canceling its invitation to the Palestinian President. While right wingers celebrated the news, most Jewish leaders expressed shock and embarrassment at the insult. A number threatened to resign from the Museum’s board of directors and called Arab Americans to apologize for the insult. The story continued for at least four days with the Museum’s decision looking worse each day, and the Palestinian President’s gesture of good will looking more noble and gracious. In the end, the Museum was forced to change its decision, apologize and reinvite the President. Since it was then too late by then to be added to Arafat’s schedule, he declined the invitation but reaffirmed the sincerity of his gesture.

As disturbing as these events were, the bigoted rhetoric that accompanied them was even more distressing. Right wing members of Congress wrote letters and made public statements praising Netanyahu, reviling Arafat and threatening and condemning President Clinton for his pressure on the Israeli Prime Minister.

In newspaper articles and paid advertisements, on television and radio programs, right wing commentators and fundamentalist leaders used extraordinarily harsh language that was insulting to all Arabs. Arafat was called “a murderer” and “Hitler-like.” The pro-Likud Zionist Organization of America described Arafat as a “wretched little murderer, torturer and persecutor… .” One editor of a conservative newspaper wrote that “Arafat hardly needs to go to the Holocaust Museum to learn how to kill Jews.” Another wrote that if President Clinton persisted in putting pressure on Netanyahu to return land to the Palestinians, he would be responsible for the “bloodthirsty murder of Jews” that would follow such an act.

Fundamentalist Christian commentator Cal Thomas said on television that just because Arabs “have one head, two eyes and some of them speak English” is not reason enough to believe that they “have the same moral structure as the rest of us”. He concluded by calling Arafat “one of the most evil men on the world’s stage today”.

What was tragically ironic was that while Prime Minister Netanyahu was in the White House complaining to the U.S. President about the harsh attacks against Israel coming from the Arab press, his strongest U.S. supporters were engaging in an unprecedented bigoted attack against Arabs in the U.S. media.

The substance of the talks were overshadowed somewhat by these antics. It became clear, however, by week’s end, that serious gaps remained between the Israeli and Palestinian positions.

President Clinton called me on Thursday night to review the process and the meetings. Without going into the details of the conversation, the President indicated that he was generally pleased with President Arafat’s movement on both the security issue and the matter of the Palestinian covenant. The areas where real work remained to be done are now in Israel’s corner – specifically, redeployment and the settlement “time out”. The President and Secretary of State will apparently be giving a short period of time for detailed responses on these issues. In addition, it is believed that if there is no resolution, the United States will come forward with a public statement spelling out its own positions.

One bright spot for the Palestinians was the reception they were given by the President and the rest of the U.S. government. In his opening public remarks to President Arafat, for example, President Clinton referred to him as “our partner for peace”, a term he has used in the past to describe Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres and President Arafat and a term he did not use to describe Prime Minister Netanyahu.

President Clinton also ratcheted up the language used to describe Palestinian rights when he described one of the underlying principles of the peace process as the realization of Palestinian “aspirations to live as a free people” – a phrase that caught the attention of both the major U.S. press and the Palestinian delegation.

The wild press rampage over the President’s alleged affair with a former White House intern has now, of course, overshadowed all of this. As is usually the case with such a “feeding frenzy” – not unlike sharks madly attacking meat in the water – that story grows in detail and speculation each day. It is not yet clear whether or how it will end. What is clear is that it could not have occurred at a more critical time for Middle East peace. It is distracting to the White House, it is distracting for the press, and it will most certainly render the President less able to focus on critical issues. The fear is that this may further embolden Prime Minister Netanyahu to resist U.S. pressure. Through it all, however, the White House and State Department Middle East teams will continue to focus on their work – but how effective they will be during this crisis remains to be seen.

Should the Administration decide to use pressure as a tool, it appears they would have the support of the U.S. public.

A poll conducted at the beginning of the week for the Arab American Institute by Zogby International, one of the leading U.S. pollsters, found strong support in U.S. public opinion for Administration pressure on Israel. The AAI poll showed that the U.S. public holds Israel and the Palestinians equally to blame for the impasse in the peace process and gives President an open hand to use balanced pressure to force compliance to the peace accords. When asked what the President should do if Netanyahu fails to honor commitments, 26.5% say the U.S. President should use diplomatic pressure and 38% say he should withhold U.S. aid to Israel – a total of almost two-thirds of all voters supporting some sanctions against Netanyahu’s intransigence. And should Clinton use pressure almost 80% of those with an opinion said they would support the President’s action.

Most analysts believe that despite the current crisis, these poll numbers will hold up. Unless the Presidency is destroyed by scandal , most Americans distinguished between a domestic crisis and maintaining U.S. credibility in a foreign area. The question, however, remains how grave will this domestic crisis become and how much will it weaken or distract the President. All in all, it was a difficult and disturbing week.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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