Posted on March 31, 1997 in Washington Watch

Arab Americans presented a unified front to U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright in a March 27, meeting. The meeting which took place at the invitation of the Department if State provided an opportunity for the Secretary and the community to engage in a first time dialogue.

The ten Arab American leaders in attendance had coordinated their presentation and positions prior to the meeting. In fact, in order to ensure that there was broad community support for our effort, we engaged Arab American leaders across the U.S. in meetings, conference calls, and personal discussions in order to develop a position paper reflecting Arab American concerns with the peace process.

The position paper that grew out of these discussions presented an evaluation of the difficulties being experienced on the Palestinian, Lebanese, and Syrian tracks of the peace process and recommendations to the Secretary which we felt would help save the process from collapse.

The final document submitted to the Secretary was endorsed by Arab American leaders of 42 organizations nationwide. It also framed the basis for much of our discussion with the Secretary.

With regard to the Palestinian track, we expressed our grave concerns to the Secretary that the process was in imminent danger of collapse primarily due to the Israeli decision to move forward with the Jabal Abu Ghnaim settlement. The refusal of this government in Israel to honor agreements reached between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership and their penchant for acting unilaterally to impose their will by force had eroded Palestinian confidence in the negotiating process.

While we acknowledged the positive commitments the U.S. had made to advance the Palestinian position in the negotiations but noted that, the two U.S. vetoes in the United Nations had seriously damaged Palestinian and Arab confidence in the U.S. role.

It was our view, expressed to the Secretary unless the U.S. moved forcefully to convince the Israelis to stop the settlement at Jabal Abu Ghnaim, the process would not move forward.

In that regard we told the Secretary that the Dennis Ross mission would only succeed if he applied balanced pressure. To openly pressure Palestinian president Yasir Arafat based on “perceptions”, while not applying pressure to Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu for his real violations of the peace process would doom the process and further compromise the U.S. role.

The wound of Jabal Abu Ghnaim must be closed and the crippling blockade against the Palestinians must be ended.

On the Syrian track we were unanimous in asserting that the U.S. should not forsake high-level and bi-lateral talks with the Syrian government. The Syrian track is critical for peace in the Middle East to be comprehensive.

In that context we told the Secretary that it was our view that the U.S. should insist that the Israeli-Syrian talks be restarted at the point where they left off, with the U.S. affirming its commitment to the progress that had been made in the negotiations before Israel unilaterally suspended the discussions in February 1996.

While we acknowledged positive steps taken by the Administration to foster U.S.-Lebanese relations, we called on the Secretary to further enhance Lebanese sovereignty by visiting Lebanon, by ending the ban on U.S. citizens traveling to Lebanon, and by calling on Israel to honor United Nations Security Council resolution 425 and withdraw from Lebanese land it has occupied since 1978.

We also expressed our grave concern to the Secretary that Israel’s twenty-four air strikes on Lebanon so far this year raise the danger that, once again, the conflict in Lebanon may escalate into full-scale hostilities. This is a situation which the U.S. should make every effort to preempt.

Secretary Albright was frank and open in most of her remarks to our delegation. She shared our view that the peace process faced real dangers and that she was saddened by this crisis and its impact on people.

She had hoped that there would have been momentum from the Hebron agreement that would have moved not only the Palestinian-Israeli process forward but also make possible advances on the Lebanese and Syrian tracks as well. It was a result of this hope, she noted, that President Clinton had invited regional leaders to Washington.

She acknowledged that the construction at Jabal Abu Ghnaim (she used the Arabic name for the settlement site) had undermined confidence and hope and had, therefore, caused damage to the process. For this reason she said, “we would have preferred that this decision had not been taken,” reiterating the position stated many times by the Administration.

It was in this context that the Secretary made reference to the terrorist bombing in Tel Aviv and referred to it as a “disaster.”

It was the view of many of the Arab American leaders who were present at the meeting that many in the Administration are concerned that this bombing has further compounded the situation and led to even deeper erosion in the peace effort.

In all of the debates that has ensued as to whether President Arafat issued a “green light” for the bombing and must now issues a “red light” it does not appear that the Administration agrees with the Israeli assessment that Arafat gave a “green light”, but only that there is the perception that has now been created that there was such a signal.

In any case we noted that since the Palestinian leadership has condemned the act, both wrong and tragic it is that the burden of taking steps to rescue the peace process now be shifted even partly onto his shoulders. It belongs squarely on the shoulders of the Israeli government and its heavy handed behavior.

We concluded by urging the Secretary to reexamine the U.S. position regarding the Netanyahu government and its violations of the peace process and to play a more aggressive role in moving the process forward on the basis of agreements reached to date. At stake, we insisted, were not only Israeli and Arab concerns but significant U.S. national security interests as well.

Secretary Albright indicated that this would be the first of many meetings and , in fact, suggested that we would meet again to evaluate the situation following Ambassador Ross’ assessment of the situation in the region.

It was a useful meeting with a Secretary who was most engaging and eager to hear and learn and develop a dialogue, This fact, and the fact the Arab American presented a unified and positive position of consensus made the meeting an important first step.

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