Posted on November 13, 1995 in Washington Watch

The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin casts a pall over the Middle East peace process. It is a tragic reminder of the role that religiously-based fanaticism has played in shaping Israeli policy toward the peace process.

For two years now, Israel’s fundamentalists and their threats of violence have seriously constrained the ability of the Israeli government to meet several Palestinian concerns in the process. Continued settlement building, maintaining provocative settler communities in Gaza and Hebron, and regular episodes of settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank have all combined to distort the process and delay implementation of the Declaration of Principles.

Now Rabin, who was so often frustrated by those groups, and who frequently denounced them, has lost his life to one of their disciples.

While many question whether or not the process will survive the passing of Rabin, in a recent meeting with Arab American leaders President Clinton provided a U.S. commitment that the timetables agreed upon by the Israelis and Palestinians would be adhered to.

Those of us who met with the President pressed him on this point and indicated our deep concern for the continuity of the peace process. We also articulated our frustration with the status quo before the Rabin assassination: the slow pace of implementation, the conditions facing Palestinians in Hebron and Jerusalem, and the difficulties faced by Palestinians resulting from continuing closure of the West Bank and Gaza as well as other non-security impediments to Palestinians economic growth.

The President was quite clear in asserting the importance of “bringing the fruits of peace” to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and his understanding of the difficulties created by the closures and other impediments.

Other Administration officials with whom Arab Americans recently met were equally clear on these points. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown repeated a call he made last January when he traveled to Gaza and met with PNA President Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian business community. The closure of the territories is an impediment to businesses and growth. Another way must be found to balance Israeli security concerns with Palestinian economic needs.

Another U.S. Administration official who spoke to Arab Americans this weekend presented an optimistic assessment of the peace process in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin. The loss of Rabin, he stated, was a tragic one for peace. He asserted that the Prime Minister had both the vision and the strength to mobilize Israeli support to sustain the drive toward peace. But, the Administration official noted, the murder of the Prime Minister “can not and will not stop the process” because there are forces driving the process forward on both sides. The peace process, in his view, has become both institutionalized and irreversible.

One thing is certain. Israeli society and the American Jewish community have been traumatized by the assassination. U.S. officials have been shocked, as well, by their recognition of the real threat posed by Jewish fundamentalism and violence.

Recent polls show that Israelis have responded to the murder of Rabin by becoming even more strongly committed to carrying out Israel’s withdrawal from the territories, cracking down on violent right-wing factions and even supporting acting-Prime Minister Shimon Peres in election polls over Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Whether or not these attitudes will be sustained, and whether or not the terms of Israeli-Palestinian agreements and timetables will be adhered to remains to be seen. But what is clear is that the ugly murder of Rabin has shaken up attitudes in Israel and forced the issue of peace to be more directly debated and addressed than ever before.

That the assassination occurred within the week after the Amman Middle East North Africa (MENA) summit is ironic. The summit was an impressive affair, and an overall success for its Jordanian hosts. Amman was freshly painted, secure and hospitable, decked out in with banners celebrating the presence of its international visitors.

The theme of the conference was brilliantly described by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, who noted the promise that MENA represents. He constructed a vision for those attending the conference of the future and its possibilities for prosperity and growth. It was a compelling vision—but one that requires the achievement of a just and comprehensive peace before it becomes a lasting reality.

But in traveling the next day to Jerusalem and Hebron, I was taken from the vision of MENA to the reality of the West Bank. Instead of “Peace Today, Profit Tomorrow” or “MENA Today, the World Tomorrow” (as two of Amman’s banners read), I remarked that my visit felt more like “MENA Yesterday, Reality Today.”

Palestinians still cannot do business. Some Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza were even denied permits to cross over the border to attend the MENA conference. And with provocative settlers and impediments to economic development everywhere, it is clear that if the process does not move forward with all deliberate haste and with greater justice and respect for Palestinians and their rights, the vision of regional peace could well collapse because its foundation – the Israeli-Palestinian track – is not yet firmly established.

This is the issue that Israelis will now have to confront directly. For the promise of peace and regional economic cooperation to become a reality, Israel must counter the threat posed by right-wing fanaticism and move forward in acting concretely to recognize Palestinian rights.

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