Posted on October 02, 1995 in Washington Watch
Some things change, some things remain the same.
It was impossible to avoid making comparisons between last week’s Israeli-Palestinian White House ceremony and the September 1993 Washington signing of the Declaration of Principles (DoP).
The days leading up to the 1993 event were filled with expectations: a psychological and emotional breakthrough was occurring, history was being made. This year, on the other hand, found neither the Arab American nor American Jewish community leaderships expressing enthusiasm at the prospect of yet another White House event.
For many, the hopes raised in 1993 had been dashed during the two long and hard years that followed. Continued repression and violence, coupled with the lack of progress in implementing the political aspects of the DoP and economic development, left supporters of peace wanting. Among both Arab Americans and American Jews, it appeared that the opponents of peace had the upper hand.
Further diminishing enthusiasm was the perception that the most recent negotiations had been too long, too hard-fought and had yielded a product too imperfect to create a workable solution.
Since so few were happy with the results, what was there to celebrate?
While the events of September 1993 left the Arab American and American Jewish leaderships euphoric, September 1995 resulted in a more serious recognition of mutual responsibility. This was, if anything, the central theme projected by Rabin and Arafat in the many speeches they gave during their two days in Washington.
There clearly is a new relationship that has developed among the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. Their handshake and smiles didn’t seem forced this time, and neither did their words. Rabin, Arafat and Peres actually spoke about one another with humor and warmth. Rabin even praised his Foreign Minister, Peres, in glowing terms – an act which some in the American Jewish community noted was more indicative of the changing attitudes than the warm words of praise and support he offered to PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat.
Equally telling of this change in attitude were comments both Rabin and Peres made separately in public events during their two day visit to Washington.
Speaking before a gathering of Jewish leaders, Rabin strongly condemned those who attack the peace process. He chided those in the Jewish community who think that because they give money to Israel, they can dictate its policy. It was the policy of his government to honor and complete this peace process, and if his U.S. Jewish opponents didn’t like it they could he said, in effect, “keep their money.”
At some point in his remarks Rabin noted that the goal of the peace process was to see Israel living next to – and he said – “an independent Palestinian state.” After a pause, he corrected himself saying that it would be “something less than a state.” A number of Jewish leaders who were present noted that Rabin often used the word “state,” and during his pause, there was no negative audience reaction. Rabin’s “apparent” miscue was no surprise and created no shock – a Palestinian state is an inevitability and most American Jews know it.
For his part Peres, speaking before a mixed Arab American and American Jewish audience, also gave new insight into the changing attitude. He spoke of having come to understand the misery that Palestinians have had to endure and noted that he has learned in his life that no one has the right to take freedom and independence away from any other people. As he spoke passionately about these feelings, there were whispers in the audience commenting on the Foreign Minister’s very personal expression of feeling for Palestinian suffering!
For his part, Arafat worked hard on the day following the Thursday ceremony. He began the day at a Builders for Peace breakfast, urging more investment in the West Bank and Gaza. After a few official meetings, the Palestine National Authority (PNA) President spent a tough hour answering questions from the editorial board of the Washington Post. He then attended back-to-back luncheons hosted in his honor in the Senate and the House of Representatives.
He again received tough and pointed questions and gave back tough and pointed answers. Many of the members of Congress who attended were the very same members who only one week earlier were rudely insulting Arafat and calling for an end to U.S. financial support for the PNA. A number of those same congressmen indicated that they had been very impressed by the PNA President’s straightforward answers to their questions. The Senate and Congressional sessions both ended with handshakes, photo-ops and commitments to work together to make the process a success – a very different tune from a week ago.
The combined result of the presences of these leaders in Washington, their words, and the White House ritual has been to create among Arab Americans and American Jews a new sense of commitment to the peace process. Cynics have become believers – but believers who realize that the success of this process will require hard work.
It is clear that the current agreement is, at best, a weak compromise. Absent U.S. pressure on Israel to give more, the Palestinians got not what they deserved but what they could get.
The most optimistic and realistic way to describe this pact is that it represents neither a half-full nor half-empty cup for Palestinians. Rather, it is the beginning of having a cup at all, and now comes the chance to fill it. Will the landmines that mar the landscape of the accord (e.g., too many settlers, too many checkpoints, too little land and water) explode in the faces of those who are earnestly hoping to make this peace work?
It is not time that will tell – it is the commitment of leadership in both the region and in the U.S. that will shepherd the process through to a successful completion. We left the September 1993 signing with euphoria – but with a passive sense that with the handshake, reality had changed. We left the September 1995 events knowing that reality had not changed. Feelings and some attitudes have changed – but for reality to change, the new relationships and attitudes must be transformed into hard new facts. This will require a mutual investment and commitment to implementing Palestinian rights despite the explosions and protests that are bound to occur.
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