Posted on February 08, 1999 in Washington Watch
In late January, Israel and its U.S. allies began a new political offensive in their unending war on the Palestinians. They targeted their efforts on two fronts. A short-term effort was made to embarrass Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in advance of his early February visit to Washington, hoping either to block the visit, or, at least place it under a dark cloud of controversy. A clear objective of this effort was to disrupt the developing U.S.-Palestinian bilateral relationship–a relationship that the Likud government both fears and opposes.
The more long-term front in this anti-Palestinian campaign is the Israeli effort to block U.S. recognition of an anticipated Palestinian declaration of statehood.
The results of the short-term battle fought last week over Arafat’s Washington visit show the Israelis to be the big losers. This, however, is only the first round.
While the Israeli Foreign Ministry sent out a perfunctory note to their Washington embassy, blaming them for their failure, in fact the Israelis followed their normal plan of attack.
As described by a number of U.S. papers, the Israelis launched a coordinated political and public relations attack beginning about two weeks before Arafat’s visit. First, a coalition of right-wing Christian and Jewish groups issued a statement denouncing Arafat’s intention to attend Washington’s annual National Prayer Breakfast. The groups called on the breakfast’s hosts to disinvite the Palestinian leader. Furthermore, they demanded that President Clinton refuse to meet with President Arafat before or after the event.
Next, these same groups mobilized other right-wing religious leaders to support their call and then pressured members of Congress (who normally attend the event) to denounce and boycott the breakfast. Congressman Mike Forbes, a Republican from New York, announced his intention to boycott the event stating that, “It is simply wrong for Congress to treat this unrepentant terrorist with the respect due a legitimate world leader.”
To add fuel to this fire, the Israeli government began a campaign, about one week later, announcing that President Arafat had recently released 50 Palestinians from prison, five of whom they claimed were directly involved in the “murder of Americans” in attacks in Israel.
As is typical in such Israeli propaganda efforts, the campaign was relentless–faxes from the Prime Minister’s office went directly to Members of Congress and journalists. Statements echoing these charges were made in a flurry of press conferences organized by right-wing Jewish organizations. These efforts paid off and soon several Members of Congress were making similar charges against the Palestinian President while columnists in national newspapers were demanding that Arafat not come to the United States and that Clinton refuse to meet with him.
In almost puppet-like fashion Mathew Brooks, the head of a national Jewish Republican organization, repeated verbatim the Israeli charges saying that Arafat’s “participation [in the prayer breakfast] is inconsistent with the meaning of peace. Over the last few weeks, he has released from Palestinian jails five known terrorists suspected in the murders of Americans.”
In the days before the breakfast full-page ads appeared, sponsored by right-wing Jewish groups reading “Shame. Last week, Yasser Arafat released five terrorists who killed Americans. Now Arafat is attending the National Prayer Breakfast with President Clinton, and Members of Congress.”
The ad closed with the demand, “Congressmen and Senators: Don’t go.”
To make matters worse and potentially explosive, the hosts of the breakfast, while refusing to disinvite President Arafat, extended invitations to American family members of those who had been killed in Israel–thus setting the stage for a possible embarrassing confrontation.
The first blow against the Israeli campaign was delivered by State Department Spokesperson Jamie Rubin. Two days before the breakfast he made it clear that “[the U.S. government] does not have any evidence that would confirm that any of the releases include individuals implicated in the killings of Americans.” Further on Rubin noted that “the Palestinians have completed some of their obligations [under the Wye Memorandum], but not all. And the Israelis have not carried out any of their obligations.”
The final blow against the Israeli charge was delivered by a FBI spokesperson two days later. He noted, “There is no evidence that we have they’re directly or indirectly involved in the killing of any Americans. They’re no more suspect than you or I.”
In other words, the Israelis lied. And their unrepentant “echoes” in the U.S. Congress supported them in their lie.
But, even with these rebuttals of the Israeli charges, many in Washington were tense on the morning of the breakfast. And it was here that the Israelis lost their most significant battle. With no Israeli official in attendance at the breakfast, the field was left to President Arafat and to Mrs. Leah Rabin, wife of the assassinated Israeli Prime Minister. (In fact the boycott also fizzled with only a few Members of Congress actually staying away from the event.)
In three remarkable back-to-back addresses, the keynote speaker, Christian writer Max Lucado, President Clinton and U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman (a democrat from Connecticut) set a tone of peace, reconciliation and forgiveness. Those who might have sought to embarrass or isolate the Palestinian leader were silenced.
President Clinton, in his remarks, mentioned President Arafat four times, calling him a peacemaker. He spoke of Arafat’s friendship with Yitzak Rabin and how it grew out of their common search for peace.
Senator Lieberman, who at times has sponsored anti-Palestinian legislation, built on the President’s themes and said, “I want to reach out particularly to Chairman Arafat, and Abu Mazin, and Leah Rabin and her children and do so in the spirit of unity that fills this room, but also in the recollection and remembrance of the truth that Abraham, with whom You entered the covenant, that gave birth to at least three of the great religions that are here today, that Abraham loved his son, Ishmael as he did his son Isaac. And we pray that You will bring that truth to Chairman Arafat and the leaders of Israel and You will guide them in the paths of peace so that their children and grandchildren may truly, one day, not just live in peace, but sit together as Dr. King evoked in all of us at the table of brother and sisterhood.”
Following the breakfast, the congressional leaders who attended the event warmly received Arafat. And the Palestinian leader’s meeting with President Clinton was a most positive and uplifting encounter. Many remarked that Clinton’s warm embrace of Arafat and the way that they spoke to each other was indicative of the depth of personal feeling the two leaders now have for each other.
Issues are being resolved between the two sides. The role of the United States, fixed in the Wye Memorandum as a judge and mediator, has proven to be helpful to the Palestinians–as in this week’s rebuttal by the FBI of Israel’s charges against the Palestinian Authority. And while the statehood issue has not been resolved, the U.S.- Palestinian Bilateral Commission will reconvene in Washington in mid-February to discuss a range of economic and political matters. All of these U.S.-Palestinian exchanges have established, one might say, virtual recognition of virtual statehood.
What is disturbing, of course, is that all of these developments continue to occur against the backdrop of a continuing Israeli war against the Palestinians. Five-and-one-half years after Oslo, Israel’s zero-sum game continues. According to Likud’s political rules, any recognition of the Palestinians, even an invitation to their leader to a prayer breakfast, is a call to battle. Every positive act must be stopped–at all costs.
While this short-term Israeli effort failed, the real battleground now shifts to Congress–ground that is more friendly to the Israeli side.
On February 3, 66 Members of Congress introduced legislation calling on President Clinton to oppose recognition to any “unilaterally declared Palestinian state.”
While the bill’s sponsors say that they are only concerned with a “unilateral” Palestinian declaration and the destabilizing effects that such a declaration would have on the Middle East, the congressional groups involved in drafting the bill and the organizations supporting it, betray its real intent. The bill is an anti-Palestinian initiative. Plain and simple.
The day before the bill was introduced, my organization, the Arab American Institute (AAI) released results of a national poll which showed that 55 percent of America’s likely voters would support the United States recognizing an independent Palestinian state. Only 21 percent are opposed.
Arab Americans have joined the Administration in opposition to such meddling by Congress in the Middle East peace process. Because, such a resolution, as the one proposed by Congress, is itself a unilateral and uninvited, one-sided declaration that would be disruptive.
It remains to be seen how Israel will fare in this latest battle. While Congress is certainly a more receptive pro-Israel environment than a prayer breakfast, another Israeli setback may still be possible. The legislation is, at present, only a potential threat. It is a non-lethal “sense of Congress” resolution, with no enforcement power.
The proposal may still be defeated–although that is unlikely–or, it may be rendered powerless and ignored.
It is clear that it must be opposed and broad U.S. public support for Palestinian rights must be organized and developed. But, at the same time, the Palestinians must be supported in their efforts to strengthen their bilateral ties with the Administration.
Arab analysts who criticize Arafat for choosing this strategic course are wrong. The Palestinian leader has, apparently, weighed his options and assessed the balance of forces in the world and in the region. He has realized that if he is to win future skirmishes with the Israelis, the United States will be an important ally to have, even if only partially, in his corner.
Already this approach shows some modest successes. Palestinians are receiving some backing and the personal ties between Palestinian leaders and U.S. officials are real and supportive. This, at present, is providing at least some counterweight in Israel’s never-ending wars to stop Palestinian advances toward statehood.
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