Igniting a controversy at home, House Speaker Newt Gingrich told the Israeli parliament Tuesday that Congress supports Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's reasons for rejecting a U.S. plan to break a 14-month stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Although Gingrich's remarks to the Knesset were tamer than some of his comments on the subject in Washington of late, the speech trampled on the tradition that U.S. politicians should not criticize American foreign policy while on foreign soil.
White House spokesman Mike McCurry said Gingrich's "impromptu cheering from the sidelines" was likely to harden Israel's negotiating position further, making it tougher for the U.S. government to play its customary role as mediator in the Middle East conflict.
In his speech to the Knesset, Gingrich--third in line for the White House behind President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore--paraphrased Netanyahu's rejection of a U.S.-designed compromise to settle a festering territorial dispute with the Palestinian Authority. "We cannot allow non-Israelis to substitute their judgment for the generals that Israel has trusted with its security," he said.
And on perhaps the most sensitive issue between Israel and the Palestinians, Gingrich endorsed Israel's claim to Jerusalem as its "united and eternal capital."
The speaker, who last week had heeded Clinton administration requests not to provoke problems by visiting the site, pointedly reminded Israeli lawmakers Tuesday that Congress has ordered the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a symbolic act designed to reinforce Israel's claim. Although the law requires the embassy to move next year, the Clinton administration opposes the switch and may find a way to thwart it.
While Gingrich took no new positions, his words further inflamed the already overheated Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
As he was addressing the Knesset, Palestinian legislators and Arab residents of the walled Old City clashed with Israeli police in an Arab protest over new Jewish construction in the Muslim quarter. Both Israelis and Palestinians said the melee indicated that the controversy over Jerusalem is heating up.
Gingrich's speech was something of a flip side to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's remarks earlier this month that creation of a Palestinian state would contribute to peace in the Middle East. Israel's supporters complained that her comments encouraged Palestinians to take a hard line at the negotiating table. Administration officials and advocates of Israeli-Palestinian peace now are saying the Georgia Republican's speech stiffened the Israeli position.
According to published reports, Gingrich went further in a private meeting in the prime minister's office. These reports said he urged Netanyahu to defy the U.S. peace plan.
"If true, those would be rather stunning comments that would undermine the efforts we're trying to make to advance America's national interest. . . ," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said. He added that the administration had been unable to verify the report.
Before leaving Washington, Gingrich had referred to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as "an agent for the Palestinians." The comment did not make much of a splash at the time, but it took on a new life after Gingrich's speech in Israel.
"His suggestion that the secretary of State is loyal to anyone but the people of the United States of America is offensive--and highly offensive," McCurry said. "I think it's unfortunate that the speaker, in a range of matters related to foreign policy, has injected a high degree of partisanship into his comments."
Rubin said Albright was stunned by Gingrich's remarks. "She is an agent for the American people, and any suggestion that she's an agent for anyone else is extremely provocative, unjustified and outrageous," he said.
Earlier this month, Albright sought to break an impasse between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the amount of West Bank land Israel must turn over to the Palestinians under the 1993 peace agreement negotiated at Oslo. The accord requires a reasonable transfer of land but leaves it to Israel, which has already handed over some of the West Bank, to select tracts to be turned over now.
Albright suggested a 13% transfer, far below the Palestinians' demand for more than 30% but higher than the 9% that Israel said it is willing to relinquish. The Palestinians accepted her plan in principle; Israel rejected it, claiming that it would damage Israeli security.
Gingrich's comments were condemned by groups supporting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process but were endorsed by many of Israel's U.S. supporters.
Lewis Roth, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, the U.S. affiliate of Israel's largest peace group, said Gingrich should not have made his comments to a foreign audience: "There is a very good reason why the United States has only one State Department."
But Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, commended Gingrich for telling Israeli lawmakers that "Clinton should not be demanding that Israel follow the advice of the policy wonks ensconced in the State Department instead of experienced Israeli generals who know far more clearly what Israel's needs are."
James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, said Gingrich's speech was "shameful, and it has done damage to the peace process."