Posted on December 21, 1998 in Washington Watch

This has been an extraordinary week of conflicting events and confusing emotions.

I began the week in Washington preparing to leave to join President Clinton’s historic visit to Gaza. We had formed a delegation of 18 Arab American leaders to make this trip.

Before we left, Congress’ Judiciary Committee completed its debate on impeachment and had begun voting on articles of impeachment. It was a bitter partisan debate.

Once in Jerusalem, however, the impeachment process passed out of mind. The President and all who were with him focused on the drama at hand.

As the President entered an overflowing hall in Jerusalem to address Israeli students, the cheers were deafening. The students gave their own Prime Minister a more subdued greeting. In addressing the group, Netanyahu was defensive and posturing. “We are the victims who want peace. They are unrepentant and hostile,” etc.–were the general thrust of his inciting remarks.

Clinton stuck a more balanced tone. While acknowledging the special U.S.-Israel relationship, he pleaded with the audience to look to the future and support peace. Later that evening at a state dinner, Clinton delivered a subtle but stunning rebuke to Netanyahu’s moral self righteousness and arrogance when he closed his remarks by noting: “my Bible reminds me that we must be able to forgive what others have done to us, if we are to be forgiven for what we have done to them. And it tells us that it is the peacemakers who are blessed and their reward shall be great.”

But the highlight of this visit was not the standoff with Netanyahu. It was the President’s visit to Gaza. If what we sought was a historic event–we were not disappointed. American and Palestinian flags filled the streets and decorated buildings. Posters and signs everywhere welcomed “Bill Clinton to Palestine” or showed Clinton and Arafat with the logo “we have a dream”.

The President’s speech before the Palestine National Council, Legislative Council and other Palestinian leaders was the most developed and far-reaching comment on Palestinian rights and U.S.-Palestinian relations ever delivered by a U.S.-official.

Whatever happens to Clinton or to the peace process, the contribution made by this speech will survive.

With millions of Americans listening, the President spoke passionately of Palestinian history (“a history of dispossession and dispersal”) and aspirations (“to shape a new Palestinian future on your own land”). And he acknowledged Palestinian suffering and their history of “oppression and dispossession” and Palestinian concerns: “separation of families, restriction of movement…settlement activity, land confiscations and home demolitions.”

This one speech elevated U.S. public discourse about Palestinian rights and recognized and made legitimate much of what we have fought for during the past few decades. No, it did not recognize a Palestinian state, but it laid the groundwork for such recognition.

The Arab Americans who accompanied the President were elated and felt vindicated. What we paid a price for saying just 10 years ago, the President was now acknowledging.

The next morning we awake to read the news reports of the President’s speech side by side with Republican calls for the President to resign. It was surreal.
We traveled to Bethlehem where Clinton and his family sang Christmas songs of peace, lit the Christmas tree in Manger Square and then left on their way back to the United States.

A Palestinian woman approached me after the ceremony and through tears of joy told me that “this was indeed a blessed Christmas”. “For so many years now,” she said, “we have had nothing to bring us joy in this Christmas season. Now for the first time in so long, I feel there is hope.”

As we were leaving to return to the United States later that day we heard the news that U.S. efforts had failed to convince Netanyahu to implement the Wye Memorandum and the process would remain stalled.

The charge would be made that Clinton’s visit was all symbol and no substance–a charge we were prepared to refute. While no progress could be reported and the intransigence of the Israeli government remained an obstacle–now compounded by reports that the entire process might be frozen awaiting new Israeli elections–the contribution made by the symbolism of the U.S. visit was itself important. It represented an irreversible step forward in U.S. recognition of Palestinian rights–a step that could be built on.

This was the message I had intended to bring back to the United States on Wednesday morning and that I had hoped to share with Arab American listeners and callers to my television and radio talk shows later that day. However, what I learned as I left the airport was that the United States was about to begin a bombing campaign against Iraq. And if that were not confusion enough, the impeachment vote, which we had all attempted to push out of mind in Jerusalem, was scheduled for later in the week.

As I write this article, CNN is alternating coverage of the partisan debate on impeachment with eerie green night vision scenes of bombs bursting over downtown Baghdad. Even more disturbing and incongruous are the contrasting sounds from Iraq itself–the morning call to prayer clashing with the explosions from missiles and antiaircraft fire.

Republicans who have been tormenting the President since he was elected are finally getting their opportunity to deliver the ultimate humiliation–impeachment in the Congress and a trial before the U.S. Senate. All sides agree that it was Clinton’s own behavior that created this mess. The bitter partisan debate, however, is over whether or not “lying about sex” warrants removal from office.

Iraq has also become a part of this partisan bickering with Republicans raising “Wag the Dog” questions–did the President time the bombing to delay the impeachment votes–or is the White House sufficiently committed to removing the Iraqi regime from power?

In all of this, for the time being at least, Palestine and peace have been pushed aside. On the West Bank the United States flags that some were waving a few days ago, are today, being burned by others. Momentum on which we could have built, has been temporarily lost.

What is equally disturbing is that what CNN’s all day-all night coverage of Iraq does not show are the people of that country. Once again they are forgotten. Their callous and brutish leader oppresses or uses them, and the U.S. either ignores their suffering or compounds it. What we see are buildings and bombs–no people. One can only wonder what will be seen when the dust settles and will anything have changed?

To add to this momentous and almost pointless confusion is the fact that although the Republican Congress will have its way–the impeachment may end with nothing having been accomplished. The Senate in all probability will not find the 67 votes it needs to remove the President from office. Whether they decide to end this farce early or with a resolution of censure or decide to prolong the agony with a debilitating and embarrassing trial–in the end, Clinton can survive this ordeal, if he so chooses.

And so we have endured this long week of conflicting events and confusing emotions, wondering at week’s end how to feel and what to think. And asking the questions: what has been accomplished and what might have been different?

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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