A grim President Clinton worked Sunday to salvage his most hard-fought foreign-policy achievement, pressing the Israeli government to move ahead on peace and Palestinians to renounce violence.
Clinton had little to show for his first day of a three-day visit to Israel and Palestinian-ruled territories, however. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in consistently tough language, repeatedly stressed violations by Palestinians of the peace accord reached in Wye, Md., in October, and he turned aside American entreaties to meet a deadline for withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank.
Instead, the day in Jerusalem was full of symbolism and ceremony for a president besieged at home and facing possible impeachment for having concealed an affair with an aide.
Clinton donned a black yarmulke and placed a stone from the Wye River on the tomb of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose help creating the current peace process in 1993 in Oslo cost him his life. And the president delivered an inspirational speech about reconciliation to several thousand high school students who--unlike their political leaders--seemed happy to hear him.
“In the stormy relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, one thing and only one thing is predestined: You are bound to be neighbors,” Clinton said at Jerusalem’s convention center. “The question is not whether you will live side by side, but how you will live side by side.”
Clinton urged Israelis and Palestinians to treat one another with respect and understand one another’s fears and dreams. The teenagers in Clinton’s audience were enthusiastic, but Netanyahu rarely applauded.
In a further sign of the prevailing tensions, Clinton and Netanyahu spent a scant 10 or 15 minutes together in one-on-one talks, U.S. officials said. The rest of the time they were with their wives or staffs or at public ceremonies.
A single advance was reported Sunday: Israeli officials dropped their resistance to a three-way summit with Clinton, Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. A meeting will probably be held tonight at the Erez crossing point between Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip.
That advance came after a controversy was apparently resolved over how Palestinian officials will go about annulling anti-Israel clauses in their charter during a meeting today in Gaza City.
Clinton placed an enormous personal investment in the Wye accord, which he negotiated with Netanyahu and Arafat during marathon talks. His trip to the Middle East was called for in the accord and was intended to be a celebration of the achievement.
Instead, the agreement is paralyzed, violence has racked the West Bank for days, and constructive dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians has virtually ceased.
The interim accord given official life in an emotional signing ceremony Oct. 23 at the White House calls for Israel to cede an additional 13% of the West Bank to the Palestinians, who in turn must fight terrorism and take steps to ensure Israeli security.
But after an initial troop withdrawal and the opening of a Palestinian airport, Israel suspended the accord because of surging unrest by Palestinians protesting the continued detention of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
Israel accused Palestinian officials of inciting and encouraging the violence, a point Netanyahu made to Clinton on Sunday during a joint news conference.
Standing at a lectern a few feet from the president, Netanyahu lashed out at what he termed one Palestinian violation after another, including a “campaign of incitement” against Israelis and statements by Arafat that he will declare an independent state in May, with Jerusalem as its capital.
What any future Palestinian entity looks like, and the status of Jerusalem, which Jews also claim, are supposed to be decided in final negotiations between the two sides that have yet to begin in earnest.
“No one can seriously expect Israel to hand over another inch of territory,” Netanyahu said, until Arafat corrects such statements. Throughout most of Netanyahu’s hard-line remarks, Clinton stared straight ahead and remained expressionless except for the clenching of his jaw.
In his response, Clinton agreed that the Palestinians have to do more to end violence, but he pointedly contradicted Netanyahu’s bleak litany of Palestinian violations.
“Have the Palestinians fulfilled all their commitments?” Clinton asked. “They certainly could be doing better to preempt violent demonstrations in the street. . . .
“But in other areas, there has been a forward progress on the meeting of the commitments.
“Now,” he added, “real efforts have to be made on both sides to regain the momentum.”
The president was careful to begin his public remarks here with a reaffirmation of the United States’ “iron-clad” commitment to Israel’s safety and right to exist and prosper. He announced support for an additional $1.2 billion for Israel to pay for troop withdrawals and security.
Also Sunday, a young Jewish settler was stabbed by a Palestinian girl in the West Bank, the Israeli army said, and an Islamic Jihad figure was reportedly arrested in Gaza by Palestinian police after he went on TV to say Clinton should be killed.
Clinton looked haggard throughout the day, the strain of the crises both here and at home showing. Many Israelis and Palestinians believe his weakness will make it more difficult for him to press demands here, especially before a tenacious negotiator like Netanyahu.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright conceded that the Americans failed to persuade Netanyahu to agree to meet the next deadline for withdrawing troops from the West Bank. Originally, the deadline to cede 5% more of West Bank territory would have been this Friday. Netanyahu, under fire from right-wing allies for having signed the peace deal to begin with, faces a no-confidence vote next Monday that could topple his government.
“Based on the present state of things, it seems to me that the government will find it very, very hard to approve withdrawal because the violations [by Palestinians] are so blunt,” Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon said after meeting with Albright.
Today, Clinton travels to Gaza, becoming the first American president to visit Palestinian-ruled territory. There, he will preside over a meeting of Palestinian organizations, including the Palestine National Council, that will ratify Arafat’s earlier decision to void clauses in the Palestine Liberation Organization charter that call for the destruction of Israel.
Israeli officials had been demanding a formal vote on the matter, with a head count, and the Palestinians, who previously annulled the offensive clauses in 1996, refused. But U.S. special envoy Dennis B. Ross negotiated a compromise whereby the Israelis will apparently accept a show of hands.
If all goes as planned, at least one crisis will have been averted. Israel had refused to budge on other elements of the peace deal until the charter was sanitized.
In Jerusalem, Clinton joined in the ritual lighting of a menorah candle to mark the start of Hanukkah. He is being accompanied on this trip by his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who Sunday visited a rare oasis of Jewish-Arab coexistence, a mixed school at the Neve Shalom community, and daughter Chelsea, who toured the Old City and prayed at the Western Wall, the remains of the Second Jewish Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago.
The centerpiece of Clinton’s time in Jerusalem was his appearance at Binyanei Hauma convention center.
Netanyahu opened the event with a speech that blasted the Palestinians for using schoolbooks that encourage children to aspire to be terrorists. The language used in Palestinian schools and on Palestinian television continues to be full of hate, he said. “Israel doesn’t exist in the textbooks or on their maps,” he said.
He suggested that an Israeli who attempted to visit Gaza would not emerge alive. He asked everyone who lost a relative in wars with Arabs to raise their hands. Hands shot up across the auditorium.
By contrast, Clinton spoke of reconciliation.
“If you are to build a future together, hard realities cannot be ignored,” he told the audience. “Reconciliation after all this trouble is not natural. The differences among you are not trivial. There is a history of heartbreak and loss. But the violent past and the difficult present do not have to be repeated forever. . . .
“The peace process will succeed if it comes with a recognition that the fulfillment of one side’s aspirations must come with--not at the expense of--the fulfillment of the other side’s dreams.”
* ISRAELIS DIVIDED
Students gathered to hear Clinton speak in Jerusalem reflect nation’s deep fractures. A10