NEW YORK (Jan. 15)
Questions about the peace process and related issues he will be discussing with Secretary of State James Baker this week were off limits at Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s news conference here last Friday.
“You can ask me questions related to the meeting, but don’t expect any answers,” Rabin told reporters after appearing at a closed session of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
But he was forthcoming on other matters, including developments in Eastern Europe and their implications for Soviet Jews; their resettlement in Israel; the recent Syrian-Egyptian rapprochement; and the continuing Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Even before Rabin left Israel, his meetings with Baker and other top administration officials, scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, were shadowed by reports of mounting frustration in Washington.
Despite formal denials from the State Department, Baker is said to be ready to abandon his peace efforts in the Middle East unless there is some movement on his five-point plan for an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, hosted by Egypt.
The dialogue is supposed to help implement Israel’s plan for elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But Israeli officials are concerned about some of the dialogue’s implications.
Rabin will be meeting Wednesday and Thursday with Vice President Dan Quayle, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Baker.
URGES AID FOR SOVIET JEWS
Rabin spoke to the Conference of Presidents specifically about the dramatic openings in Eastern Europe and the historic opportunity to bring hundreds of thousands of Jews to Israel.
“But he said that the outcome depends on Israel and world Jewry,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the conference.
“We have to be prepared to offer help to Soviet Jewish immigrants to help settle them and integrate them,” he said.
The intifada and Rabin’s role as defense minister in setting military policy was the main topic of discussion at the news conference.
Questions were asked about the case of Col. Yehuda Meir, an Israel Defense Force officer facing court-martial for ordering his men to “break the bones” of Palestinians rioters.
With over 400,000 Israelis serving in the territories, Rabin said, there have been only “several hundred” cases in which soldiers or officers did not “behave in accordance with the laws.
“And the laws are strict,” Rabin added.
He said 99 percent of the activity by masked Palestinians was against fellow Arabs, not Israelis. In 1989 alone, 132 Palestinians were killed by other Palestinians, he said.
Speaking of the way the intifada is perceived abroad, Rabin said, “I believe that there is a tendency not to understand, not to see the problem the way it exists in Israel.
“What’s going on in the territories — it’s not a struggle about human rights, or about other issues. It’s a hostile confrontation between total different entities — religiously, politically and nationally.
“Therefore, you have to look at the confrontation, not on each superficial look on television, but what goes behind it.”
APPEARANCES IN LOS ANGELES
Rabin offered interesting observations about Syria, during his meeting with the Conference of Preisdents.
He said the Syrians feel insecure because they are unsure of Soviet backing. So President Hafez Assad is now turning toward President Hosni Mubarak to patch up relations.
Recalling how Syria denounced Egypt for signing a peace treaty with Israel, Rabin was said to have remarked, “The Syrians came back to Mubarak, and Assad had to swallow his speeches of the past 10 years.”
But there has been no diminution of Assad’s hostility toward Israel, Rabin said. The IDF, therefore, must stand ready on the Golan Heights.
Rabin flew to Los Angeles on Saturday evening and addressed the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the American Friends of Hebrew University on Sunday.
He managed to hold his share of the spotlight Sunday evening in competition with some of the biggest names in Hollywood at the 20th Scopus Award Gala, attended by some 2,000 supporters of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Honoree of the event was television personality and entrepreneur Merv Griffin, who exchanged compliments and jokes with Rabin; former President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy; and actors Clint Eastwood, Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier, Jimmy Stewart and George Burns.
In his remarks, Rabin noted that “if Jerusalem is the heart of the Jewish people, then the Hebrew University is the brain.”
Rabin spoke to 550 people at Stephen Wise Temple to convey “the thoughts and feelings of the people of Israel at the beginning of this decade.”
APPEALS FOR BROAD CONSENSUS
He cited four major challenges facing his nation:
* Bring in and absorb hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the Soviet Union and other East European countries, “one of the last historic opportunities to considerably increase the Jewish population of Israel”;
* Diminish the current economic and educational inequalities among different segments of the Israeli population;
* Maintain the security of Israel against the threats posed by Arab states, terrorist attacks and the intifada; and
* Pursue the Israeli peace initiative, which proposes free elections for Arab residents of the territories.
Rabin said that the peace plan offers Palestinians their best chance to achieve their goals. He appealed for a wide consensus in Israel and in Jewish communities abroad to support the plan.
“I look to the future, not with pessimism or optimism, but with Jewish realism,” he said.
(JTA correspondent Tom Tugend in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)