Palestine Liberation Organization Chief Yasser Arafat told an American Jewish audience this week that differences between Palestinians and Jews must and can be overcome because there is no alternative.
“There must be a comprise,” he said Monday. “There must be a peaceful solution.”
Amid extraordinarily tight security, Arafat delivered a rambling speech before roughly 150 members of the Executive Committee of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council about the common land, history and suffering of Jews and Palestinians and their problem-plagued quest for peace.
Arafat’s address to the Jewish leaders came one day after joining world leaders to participate in the U.N. General Assembly’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
Arafat, who last appeared at the world body in New York 21 years ago with an olive branch and a gun holster, this time told the world he had come “with the olive branch hoisted over the peace of the brave.”
The Arafat-NJCRAC meeting was a reunion for some.
A top-level NJCRAC delegation met with Arafat at his Gaza beachfront office a year ago.
On Monday, the atmosphere of expectant quiet was shattered by two protesters shortly after NJCRAC chair Lynn Lyss introduced Arafat by saying the peace process “does not require us to forget the past,” but “does require us not to be prisoners of the past.”
An unidentified man and woman were swiftly ejected by police after shouting, “You are a murderer,” and “Shame on you, shame on you, NJCRAC.”
Sparse but loud protests against the meeting were also mounted outside the B’nai Zion building on E. 39th Street where Arafat spoke. “Shame on you, B’nai Zion,” read one banner. “Yasser Arafat still a terrorist,” read another.
Arafat opened his remarks by playing down the protests. “We can understand it,” he said, making a point of setting aside his prepared text and “speaking from my heart.” …TX.-”We know it is not easy to overcome all these dramatic events suddenly after two agreements in Washington and one in Cairo,” he said, referring to the agreements on Palestinian self-rule reached between Israel and the PLO over the past two years.
But “we are not only cousins, we are peace partners,” he said. “To accept or not accept, it’s a fact.”
Arafat became more focused in his remarks only in response to pointed questions from Lyss about his repeated use of the term “jihad,” or holy war, in speeches to his constituents and about the clauses in the Palestinian National Covenant calling for Israel’s destruction.
“You have to understand our terminology as I’m understanding Jewish terminology,” Arafat said about his use of the term `jihad,’ which has angered and unnerved many American Jews.
Echoing previous explanations, Arafat said he was referring to a second type of jihad that follows the more traditional jihad on the battlefield.
“This is the grand jihad to build a state and deal with your neighbors, with civilians, with humanitarian needs,” he said.
He also said the offensive clause in the covenant was “caduc,” using the French term for “null and void.”
When pressed, he said he would “definitely” convene the Palestine National Council after Palestinian elections to repeal the clause “if Israel is ready to let” all the members come to vote for the repeal.
Under the latest agreement on extending self-rule in the West Bank, the Palestinians will hold elections in January.
Arafat wryly observed that he envied Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for having to contend with only one united opposition to his peace program.
“I have many,” he said. “We face Arab opposition, Palestinian opposition, Islamic opposition, even Christian opposition.”
Arafat said that despite efforts, he has been unable to secure any agreement with the fundamentalist Islamic group Hamas. The PLO and Hamas had reportedly been seeking an accord regarding upcoming Palestinian elections and curtailing terrorism.
He also talked about his people’s poverty and starvation. “You don’t know what that means,” he said. “We live it.”
In response to Lyss’ call to encourage an end to the Arab boycott of Israel, Arafat called on Israel to end its economic boycott of the Palestinians when it imposes a closure between Gaza and Israel, costing $6 million a day.
“It’s a disaster for us,” he said. “In spite of all the obstacles, we insist on continuing.”
Arafat’s appearance seemed to satisfy those in attendance, many of whom support the peace process and we predisposed to be sympathetic to him.
“The specifics of what Arafat said were less important than the fact that he appeared before the organization that represents the grass-roots of American Jewry,” said Robert Lifton, a vice chairman of the NJCRAC executive.
“It is one more example of grass-roots support for the peace process,” he said.
“It demonstrated in a public forum that the process of normalization continues,” said Lawrence Rubin, executive vice chairman of the NJCRAC.
“Around the city people are asking, `Does he mean it? Does he mean what he signed?’” Gail Pressberg, Washington director of Americans for Peace Now, said prior to Arafat’s remarks.
“Arafat has got to convince people he’s on a peace course in which he’s going to do his utmost to deal with problems in his community, chiefly violence and terrorism,” she said.
Asked after his remarks whether he had achieved what she believed he had to, she responded with an unequivocal, “No question.”
The meeting did generate protest from several organizational quarters, however.
The Zionist Organization of America issued a written statement saying, “No Jewish groups should meet with Arafat until he retracts his jihad remarks.”
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregation of America, a member of the umbrella NJCRAC, also issued a statement of protest and boycotted the meeting.
It charged that the NJCRAC provided Arafat “with a public forum in which to present the PLO’s position and his own version of events with little or no opportunity for the representatives of the Jewish community to challenge his presentation or to ask in adequate fashion the crucial questions relating to the PLO’s ongoing and serious failure to comply with its agreements.”
But Martin Raffel, the NJCRAC’s associate executive vice chairman, defended the meeting.
“Once the PLO became Israel’s peace partners it didn’t occur to us we shouldn’t meet with them,” he said.
On contrary, Raffel said, “there has to be an opportunity to enable our leadership to meet with Arafat and share its concerns directly. There has to be honest dialogue.”
The ZOA and Orthodox Union are members of the Conference of Presidents for Major American Jewish Organizations, which planned to send a delegation to meet privately with Arafat on Tuesday.
That meeting was expected to focus on some of Arafat’s language, ongoing Palestinian terrorism, the Palestinian covenant and other issues of compliance with the agreement with Israel.
A recent survey by the American Jewish Committee showed that in spite of the NJCRAC’s warm reception of Arafat, Jewish public opinion about the PLO is skeptical.
Some 71 percent surveyed said they do not believe that the PLO “can be relied upon to honor its agreements and refrain from terrorist activity against Israel.”
A full 91 percent said the PLO is “not doing enough to control terrorist activity against Israeli by Hamas and other Palestinian extremist groups.”