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Settlers and Palestinians Voice Fears in Talks with American Jewish Leaders

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Palestinians told American Jewish leaders visiting here this week that they remained committed to the peace process, but said Israel’s credibility depended on the government’s disarming of Jewish extremists.

Jewish settlers in the Jordan Valley told the same visiting Americans that they feared that the armed Palestinian police force promised in the peace accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization threatened their safety.

The American Jewish leaders were here for the annual mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a meeting this year held under the shadow of last Friday’s attack by a Jewish settler in a Hebron mosque.

They found what one delegate, Lawrence Rubin, described as “a very difficult time,” in which the Israeli government “feels betrayed, the settlers feel abandoned and the Palestinians feel vulnerable.” Rubin is executive vice chair of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

The delegates roundly condemned the massacre of at least 40 worshippers, with most fearing the damage caused to the peace process and eager to see peace negotiations get back on track.

Several hoped that the United States would not allow the Palestinians to exploit the tragedy to change the terms of the negotiations.

“A lot depends on the U.S. reaction,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents.

“When the U.S. says this isn’t going to change the ground rules (for the talks), it sends a message to those who would try to exploit the tragedy to extract political concessions which properly belong in the negotiating sessions,” said Hoenlein.

“It’s not that the peace process is in danger, it’s that it’s fragile,” said Rubin. “It’s important for us to be as supportive as possible of Israel and for the U.S. government to get the peace process back on track.”

“There is a threat of polarization, both Palestinian and Israeli,” he continued. “The challenge for the Israeli leadership is to ensure the polarization not be allowed to predominate.”

In east Jerusalem, Mahdi Abdul Hadi, of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, addressed the group after asking it to rise for a moment of silence for the victims of the massacre.

“We, the Palestinians, took the decision that we’re still interested in peace,” he said. “We are still committed to the accords and still committed to dialogue in spite of the pain.”

At the same time, Abdul Hadi lamented what he said was the failure of Israel to deliver on any of its promises.

“Nothing has changed on the ground and we are still victims of the occupation,” he said.

This is “a testing time,” he added. “If there is no change, we will see more blood, more pain and more suffering.”

He also said he saw, in the wake of the massacre, the start of a transformation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into an ideological one between two religious. “We can’t afford it,” he said. “We must move quickly in spite of everything.”

There was a testy exchange when Abdul Hadi was repeatedly asked by Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, to condemn the Palestinian killings of innocent Jewish victims and the clauses in the PLO covenant calling for Israel’s destruction.

Abdul Hadi ultimately challenged Klein to write a condemnation in his own words and said he would sign it. But Hadi left before the program ended and Klein could not give him the document.

The incident left Klein shaken. “The refusal of Abdul Hadi to condemn the murder of Jewish Israelis sent a very powerful and frightening message about his insincerity in wanting to live in peace with the Israeli people,” he said. “What could be more simple” than a condemnation?

Hanan Ashrawi, former spokeswoman for the Palestinian negotiating team, spoke quietly but passionately to the delegates about what she called the “extremely painful and dangerous” situation.

Ashrawi, who resigned her post to work for human rights in the territories, said the attack “confirmed the worst fears of the Palestinians” about the threat posed to their safety by the Jewish extremists.

She also said the settlements and the peace process were irreconcilable. She said there is a climate among some of the settlements which nurtures extremists such as Baruch Goldstein, the killer in Hebron.

“These people do not emerge from a vacuum,” she said. “It was not an isolated act by one deranged person.

“You have placed in unhealthy proximity hostile people” who are fully armed, she said, referring to the settlers in Palestinian centers in the territories. “You can’t create an unhealthy situation and then say it’s an isolated act.”

After the meeting, Harriet Green, the immediate past president of Na’amat, predicted “it will be at least two or three generations before all the venom and hatred that exists will be dissipated and Jews and Arabs can live alongside one another in peace and cooperation.

“Being a Jew,” Green continued, “I understand (the Palestinians’) pain, but at the same time they can’t be so narrow-minded that they can’t see another point of view. And I think they don’t understand where the Israeli government or Jews are coming from.”

A day later, the delegates traveled, with military escorts, past Jericho to the Jordan Valley. There they heard David Levy, head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, tell of the pain, fear and uncertainty of the region’s Jewish inhabitants.

He said the region’s settlers, most of them farmers of dates, flowers and vegetables, were unwittingly drawn into politics once “somebody decided the agreement with the Palestinians has to start here, in the Jordan Valley.”

Under the declaration of principles signed between Israel and the PLO last September, the withdrawal of Israeli troops and the beginning of Palestinian autonomy will take place first in Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

Under the accord, the withdrawal was supposed to conclude April 13, but an agreement on implementing withdrawal and autonomy has yet to be reached.

Prior to the massacre in Hebron, Israelis and Palestinians were expecting a signed agreement within a month, but peace talks are now broken off indefinitely.

Levy spoke of the assurances by all Israeli governments that the Jordan Valley would always remain a security zone, only to find the assurances “crushed” in the wake of recent developments.

Levy said he was alarmed by plans for a Palestinian police force in nearby Jericho which could reportedly include as many as 5,000 officers.

“We know, because of the background of the (PLO) organization, that we’ll be the target,” he said.

At the same time, the settlers will have no way under the autonomy agreement to get to Jerusalem except across the Palestinian-controlled area. “Crossing Jericho is a source of life,” said Levy, “and no one can give us any answers.”

While Rabin has pledged the settlements are non-negotiable and secure for now, the signed declaration of principles calls for their future to be decided after five years. By then, said Levy, the settlers will be “crushed inside” by the uncertainty of their fate.

“If you don’t have hope there will be something to live for, why build anything, why plant a tree?” he asked.

“The majority of the people here won’t be an obstacle to peace,” added another settler. “We may not like it, but whatever it is, even if it is at personal cost, we won’t fight it actively.”

He said they would fight, however, against being used and sacrificed as a “bargaining chip.”

The Conference of Presidents was also addressed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu and scores of other officials and analysts during the mission, which was scheduled to conclude on Wednesday.

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