Posted on October 07, 1996 in Washington Watch
On October 3, 1996 thirty Arab American leaders received an exclusive in-depth briefing from Anthony Lake, the National Security Advisor to President Clinton. The forty minute conference call briefing was organized by the White House and included Arab American community representatives from across the U.S.
Lake sought to ease community concern and disappointment with the inconclusive summit in Washington by providing an assessment of what, from the Administration’s view, was accomplished in the two day meeting.
Lake began with an overview, noting that before the summit Israelis and Palestinians were not engaging in meaningful negotiations. The recent violence, he added, was a serious development, not only for its tragic impact on the two peoples but because of the danger that it posed to the overall peace process and to the broader region.
The limited objectives of the summit were to stop the killing and to move the Israelis and Palestinians back to negotiations. He noted that not only will substantive negotiations now begin, but after two days of personal rapport, the Administration now feels that Netanyahu is approaching Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat with respect. While the Prime Minister has committed himself to resolving the issue of redeployment from Hebron, Lake said, these are words, “the challenge now is to turn those words into reality.”
Responding to a question about the asymmetry of power that mars the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Lake acknowledged this as a U.S. concern. That is why, he noted, U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross is going to the talks at Erez. “Ross is going,” Lake said, “to level the playing field, to ensure that Arafat will be treated with respect.” “Arafat goes back to Gaza,” he continued, “with the U.S. at the negotiating table.” In that way, he added, the U.S. feels that it is moving the Palestinian agenda forward by getting talks moving on critical issues with direct U.S. participation.
Lake also commented on the dire economic conditions facing the Palestinians, noting that, “if Palestinians don’t experience the benefits of peace, the Palestinian Authority will be weakened, extremists will win and everyone will lose.”
Arab Americans have pressed the Administration repeatedly on the economic difficulties facing the West Bank and Gaza. Lake acknowledged this and encouraged us to continue to press these issues. He announced that just that morning the President signed legislation which extends Free Trade Status to the West Bank and Gaza. The White House release on this legislation notes that this agreement, “will expand duty free treatment of products imported from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and help to spur economic development throughout the region.
This new trade initiative reflects the continuing commitment of the United States to help open new economic opportunities for the Palestinian people. The proposal grants products of the West Bank and Gaza Strip special trade status, identical to those accorded products of Israel under the Israel-U.S.. Free Trade Agreement. Such a special trade status will provide . . . and lure increased foreign investment to the West Bank and Gaza.”
Lake was critical of those who have stated that the Israeli Prime Minister goes home a victor. “This is incorrect,” he said, “and Likud’s celebrations were not helpful.”
When asked if the President had put pressure on Mr. Netanyahu, Lake indicated that he wanted to use diplomatic language and said, “The President was very clear with Mr. Netanyahu about potential losses” if the peace process was endangered. All parties have to work hard, he said, to beat the ticking clock, before “the bomb goes off.” The U.S., he indicated, knows how volatile and dangerous the current situation is and views this crisis with great seriousness.
Lake noted that in his conversations with Jewish Americans he was impressed that a number of the Jewish leaders were dismayed that the summit was being portrayed as an Israeli victory and a Palestinian loss, “they know,” he stated, “that the fates of both peoples are intertwined, “If one side fails, both lose.”
Mr. Lake concluded by praising Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Hussein for their participation and leadership during the two day meeting. He also praised the personal efforts provided by Saudi Arabian Ambassador H.R.H. Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for their assistance in working by phone to support the work of the summit.
Those of us who have been active in Washington for two decades were impressed with this outreach effort by the Administration. Once again they displaced their resolve to maintain an ongoing and respectful dialogue with Arab Americans.
By recognizing the asymmetry of power between Israelis and Palestinians and by taking steps to “level the playing field” the Administration takes a step forward in addressing a deeply held Arab and Arab American concern.
The passage of the Free Trade Act and the National Security Advisor’s invitation to meet with him in the next two weeks to explore ways to make this arrangement work for Palestinians is an additional sign of the seriousness with which the Administration is viewing both the economic crisis in the West Bank and Gaza and the role that Arab Americans can play in providing creative solutions.
Mr. Lake was serious and impressive in his outreach effort to Arab Americans. The crisis is not over, much work remains to be done. But it is clear that the Administration is aware of the gravity of the situation, both in its human dimension, and its broader political implications. If the foundation of Israeli-Palestinian peace is not secured, if Palestinians do not experience directly and quickly the benefits of peace—the process may collapse. The dangers such a collapse poses to the broader region are all too clear. That is why the President took the bold, but risky move to convene a summit in Washington. And that is why the Administration is reaching out to both Arab Americans and Jewish Americans—to assist them in saving this process and to secure their support for the difficult work ahead.
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