The Rev. Jesse Jackson, on a six-day mission to Israel to “enhance” the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, was greeted warmly, albeit with some skepticism, by Israeli and American Jewish representatives here.
The visit, which ended this week, contrasted sharply with Jackson’s previous one, 15 years ago, which was universally characterized as a disaster. It was on a swing through the region then that Jackson was rebuffed by Prime Minister Menachem Begin and embraced, in a now-famous hold, by Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.
This time around, Jackson found the landscape starkly changed. Even his invitation, extended both by the Israeli government about a year ago and by Arafat and Hebron University, spoke volumes about the change, Jackson noted.
“Fifteen years later, to be here with a joint invitation from the Israelis and the PLO, is a full circle. To be here with a `let’s talk’ policy rather than a no-talk policy, is full circle,” he said.
Jackson’s trip had all of the trimmings of any official visit, including a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, a tree-planting ceremony, a visit to Hadassah Medical Center and an absorption center.
He also was honored at dinners hosted by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin. And on Tuesday, his last day, he met for an hour-and-a-half with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the presence of U.S. Ambassador Edward Djerejian.
During the visit, Jackson also traveled to Hebron where he addressed a rally which erupted into clashes with Israeli security forces, who shot and wounded several Palestinian youths. Jackson had to take shelter in his bus. While in Hebron, he met with what he described as a cross-section of Palestinians though, contrary to some reports, he said he did not meet with anyone “who represented himself as Hamas.”
He spoke with Arafat by telephone every day.
At a small breakfast meeting with reporters on the last day of his trip, Jackson lauded the “bold and daring” Israeli and Palestinian leadership for making a break with the past and “moving from co-annihilation to co-existence.”
Jackson said he has respect for the “pain and fear on both sides” of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. He said he therefore understands why negotiating the autonomy accord – which grants Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho – is so protracted.
But he warned that time is running out and said changes “on the ground” must be made immediately to keep support for the process intact.
“Each passing day allows the saboteurs of peace to engage in acts that derail” the accord, he said.
Jackson said he has urged Arafat to come to Jericho as soon as possible. The earlier he gets there, he said, “the more details will fall into place, (making) the peace process irreversible.”
Some political observers here said there was no substantive role for Jackson to play in the peace at this juncture and suggested he was merely seeking to shore up his image as a statesman.
At the same time, however, they pointed to Israel’s awareness of the changing U.S. “political map.” They said Israel recognizes the need to cultivate its own relationships with an increasingly powerful black U.S. political leadership, a sphere traditionally handled here by American Jewish organizations.
“If (Jackson) is not the most popular and powerful black, he is clearly the most recognizable,” said one observer. “And any bridge Israel can forge with the black and Palestinian communities is desirable.”
While here, the civil rights leader seemed reluctant to attach significance to the heightened tensions back home between Jews and African-Americans. He attributed many of the problems to hype by the “tabloid press” and said he preferred to focus on other priorities, such as health care and discrimination.
He said important black-Jewish coalitions are intact and he eschewed “public confrontation” when differences do surface. “We should accentuate the positive and stop generalizing and stereotyping. We should (focus on) what we are doing (together) and be strong enough not to react to every dust particle that blows.
“I don’t want to become part of that dramatic theater of name-calling,” he said. “There is a time to speak and a time not to speak.”
The embrace between Jackson and Arafat during Jackson 1979 trip to the Middle East here was captured in a famous photograph that outraged many Jews and was used to incriminate him for years.
In the meeting this week, Jackson explained that the embrace was Arafat’s customary greeting, “but it was read as a political statement.
“There was so much fear, so much antagonism in the air,” he recalled. The United States had a policy of not talking to the PLO and, “unfortunately, those who advocated a talk policy were perceived to be anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, Which was not the truth.
“The U.S., by giving up the right to talk, lost its ability to negotiate peace,” he said.
During his visit, Jackson was also honored at a banquet in east Jerusalem held by Hebron University marking the 30th anniversary of the founding of the PLO.
Jackson also made a trip to a hospital in Afula, where he visited some of the victims of last week’s terrorist car bomb attack, which killed seven Israelis.
When asked about Arafat’s failure to condemn the Afula attack quickly and personally, Jackson said he had pressed the chairman to be “more explicit.” He said it was possible Arafat did not respond because he was in Tunis “and heard about it by way of the media.”
While Jackson said “we should insist on people showing compassion and being more sensitive,” and people “should be quick to condemn acts of terror,” he also said they should not be judged by whether or not they give “eloquent eulogies.”
What is more important is to “relieve the pain and suffering that’s breeding this extreme anger.”
Some heads of American Jewish organizations here expressed some discomfort with Jackson’s focus on the Middle East peace process, when the fires of interethnic tension are burning at home.
“The long-term question of Arab-Israeli peace does not diminish in any way the immediate need to restore the tradition of cooperation between African Americans and American Jews,” said Michael Oren, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel office. “To this end, we would certainly welcome any bold initiative by Rev. Jackson.”
“To his credit,” said Harry Wall, director of the Israel office of the Anti Defamation league, “ever since his speech in Brussels two years ago, he put himself on record about how feels about anti-Semitism. It would be refreshing to hear him repeat it in front of black audiences.”
Wall was referring to a speech at a World Jewish Congress conference in which Jackson forcefully condemned anti-Semitism.