Posted on May 06, 1996 in Washington Watch

Some things change, some stay the same.

A stream of Middle East leaders came through Washington in just one week, causing the White House to focus on the continuing drama of a troubled peace process. A cynic observing these Washington events might have noted only politics and public relations at work – but there were some hopeful and positive developments as well.

It was the tragedy of Israel’s assault on Lebanon, the upcoming Israeli elections and the crippled peace process that brought Lebanese President Ilyas Hrawi, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Yasir Arafat to the White House last week.

Of the three, it was Peres’s visit that predictably dominated the agenda. He stayed in Washington the longest, he received the most elaborate welcome, and he obtained the most substantial commitments. In this case, it was clearly politics at work.

Showering gifts on Israel in an election year is not new to U.S. presidential politics, nor is taking measures to influence Israeli politics to the benefit of the U.S.-favored candidate a new tactic.

In 1992, then-President George Bush denied loan guarantees to Israel in order to help remove the Likud Party from power. When Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin was victorious in the Israeli elections that year, the gift-giving began: Rabin received the loan guarantees, and Bush used a speech before an American Jewish audience to announce his renewal of the U.S. commitment to maintaining Israel’s “military superiority.”

President Clinton, not to be outdone by his predecessor or his current Republican opponent, continued his Administration’s efforts to buttress Peres’ electoral prospects and his own. New U.S.-Israel security and military agreements were signed on this visit, and in joint appearances before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and at the White House, the President heaped praise on Peres, even going to the extent of uncritically accepting the Israeli account of the brutal assault on Lebanon.

Fearing the negative consequences of a Likud victory (which would bring Netanyahu, Sharon and Eitan into power), the White House goals were clear: do nothing to weaken Peres before the upcoming contest in Israel; and reinforce U.S. commitments to Israel’s security in order to strengthen Israeli voter confidence in the peace process.

There was some discomfort in the White House at the initial total identification of the Arafat visit with the Israeli assault on Lebanon, and so in an effort to create at least some sense of balance, and not allow for further alienation of the Arab side in the peace process, the White House undertook some slight remedial measures.

By the time of the second Clinton-Peres public meeting, President Clinton deliberately inserted remarks into his speech intended to demonstrate concern for Lebanon’s suffering. Clinton noted,

“I have talked to the Prime Minister [Peres] about this. We are all very concerned about the civilians, the innocent people in Northern Israel, and all the people in Southern Lebanon who have lost loved ones and suffered great economic disruption. I think we have to implement this agreement faithfully and help the Lebanese rebuild their infrastructure and restore the stability of their populations.”

Peres for his part, was compelled to add that Israel would “respect religiously the understanding that was achieved…[and] participate in the effort to restore the damages in Lebanon.”

While not reparations, at least Israel has been made to offer to pay some compensation to Lebanon.

Peres’ visit was preceded by that of Lebanese President Ilyas Hrawi, who came to Washington from New York where he had addressed a special session of the United nations on the Lebanon crisis.

Hrawi’s White House meeting was originally unplanned and came about as a result of an active Arab American lobbying effort. At least some in the White House were concerned about the effect that the escalating Lebanese tragedy might have on the prospects for peace in the region and on the attitudes of the still small but growing Arab American vote in several key Midwestern states.

In this context, a hastily-planned but effective Arab American demonstration at the White House on April 23 precipitated a White House response.

The demonstration brought 3,000 Arab Americans to Washington, mainly from Michigan and Ohio, two important electoral states. Before the rally, the White House invited the group’s leaders and three members of Congress (two representing important Arab American constituencies in Michigan and Arab American Congressman Nick Rahall) to a meeting with the President’s National Security Advisor Anthony Lake.

The Arab American leadership proposed a list of requests to the White House. We specifically called for the President to:

· President Clinton should invite President Hrawi to the White House to express condolences for the Lebanese people who have suffered so much this month;
· the U.S. should offer U.S. aid to Lebanon;
· the U.S. should recommit to United Nations Security Council Resolution 425;
· the U.S. should press Israel to stop the bombing immediately and work for a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon; and
· the U.S. should also move to implement Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s six-point plan designed to ease Palestinian suffering from the Israeli closure of the West Bank and Gaza.

Before the end of that same day, the White House informed us that it was ready to respond to at least half of our list. The meeting with President Hrawi was scheduled and at the meeting President Clinton offered condolences to the people of Lebanon, restated (for the first time publicly in many years) the U.S. commitment to UN Security Council Resolution 425 and offered at least a small initial U.S. humanitarian aid package to Lebanon.

Admittedly, by all sides, more remains to be done; but a start was made. The Michigan and Ohio Arab American communities are continuing to mobilize to expand the aid package, and to push for implementation of Resolution 425.

The last of the week’s visitors to the White House was PNA President Yasir Arafat. As an elected leader, Arafat was accorded an unprecedented reception by the Clinton Administration. In his two previous visits to Washington, Arafat came as a co-signatory to Israeli-Palestinian agreements. His meetings with the U.S. President were brief and unceremonial. This time things were clearly different.

This meeting provided the PNA President an opportunity to engage the President, Vice President, Secretary of State and National Security Advisor in wide-ranging bilateral discussions. While no new U.S. aid was offered (since the White House knows that the Republican-controlled Congress will not give on that front), President Clinton did respond to Arafat’s appeal for renewed U.S. pressure to get donor countries to deliver on their promises to the PNA. Washington political observers were intrigued by the post-meeting announcement of the Clinton Administration’s agreement to form a U.S.-Palestinian commission. The commission was described by one analyst as “a vehicle designed to create an institutional framework for ongoing bilateral discussion of issues of mutual concern.” Not quite a recognition of statehood or independence, but clearly a recognition of Palestinian peoplehood – and in this regard an important symbolic advance.

Arafat’s reception by Washington’s press was also clearly different, as was his reception at a dinner hosted in his honor by a prominent Arab American businessman, Hani Masri. Attended by several White House officials and several Members of Congress, the dinner provided a clearly up-beat Arafat with an opportunity to reflect on the changes in U.S. attitudes toward Palestinians and on his feeling of the inevitability of the creation of a Palestinian state.

In many ways, the week was one of politics as usual. But though some things stayed the same, some things did change. Peres came ways from the week with his expected gifts, but the Administration felt compelled to address Lebanese concerns and give a boost to the PNA.

Washington’s excessive identification with Israel’s assault caused justified fury among Arabs and Arab Americans. The current state of the U.S.-Israeli relations is a function of politics and interests. The U.S.-Arab relationship is a matter of interests without political reinforcement. But if politics, or the absence of politics, is the problem; then more and better-organized politics is the solution.

To change the current reality and the imbalance in U.S. policy, it is imperative to identify the factors that produce change and to build on them.

The decision of the Arab states to boycott the Luxembourg follow-up meeting to Sharm el-Sheikh Summit was a political factor that helped produce change – as were the decisions by King Hussein and a Gulf Foreign Minister to cancel appearances before two American Jewish events featuring Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. All contributed to creating an awareness that there would be consequences to Israel’s behavior.

The electoral mobilization of Arab Americans in Michigan and Ohio and Washington were also factors in moving Washington to consider addressing Arab needs.

These still limited efforts produced more response – if developed into a stronger and more coherent strategy they can yield even more positive change.

To fail to work for change is to condemn oneself to live with the unacceptable status quo – and to become either despairing or embittered.

One can either surrender and curse fate, or denounce one’s enemies, or work to create political power and change. There are no other choices.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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