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News Analysis: Gingrich Visit Does Little to Alter Political Realities

The rhetoric that emerged from a visit to Israel this week by an American congressional delegation did little to alter the political realities of the peace process.

To be sure, the comments by U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and others provided a morale boost for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been under attack from opposition members accusing him of sabotaging the peace process and from right-wing coalition members charging him with capitulating to Palestinian and American pressures.

But beyond the welcome words of support, the congressional visit appeared to do little to change the fact that the Israeli government must still wrestle with the U.S. demand that it pull back from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank in exchange for concrete Palestinian steps to crack down on terrorism.

Gingrich clearly dominated the delegation, which traveled to Israel to honor the Jewish state on its 50th anniversary.

The comments of Gingrich and his House colleagues, including House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), drew the ire of Palestinian officials, who said the legislators have no place in the peace process and charged that their statements were only aimed at winning Jewish votes back home.

Whether he was aiming for Jewish votes or the next Republican presidential nomination, Gingrich’s remarks clearly had much to do with American politics – – some Democrats and Republicans have distanced themselves from what they view as the Clinton administration’s unwarranted pressure on Israel.

This resulted in a veritable war of words, with angry barbs traded back and forth this week between the Potomac and the Mediterranean.

On Tuesday, U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin lashed out at Gingrich, condemning as “appalling and outrageous” a comment Gingrich reportedly made earlier this month calling U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright an “agent for the Palestinians.”

The same day, White House spokesman Mike McCurry described Gingrich’s comment about Albright as “highly offensive.”

McCurry also suggested that Gingrich’s outspoken disagreement with administration policy could have a detrimental effect on the peace process.

“Impromptu cheering from the sidelines, when it’s designed to affect some of the critical decisions that either party has to make, has got to have something other than a beneficial impact on the process,” said McCurry.

Rubin also took up the cudgel on the same point: If reports about Gingrich’s “willingness to provoke the Israeli government to disagree with his own government” are true, he said, those “would be rather stunning comments that would undermine the efforts we’re trying to make to advance America’s national interest.”

On Wednesday, after meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, Gingrich lashed out at Rubin, saying he was outraged that Rubin would attack him while he was “overseas trying to be helpful.”

Gingrich described his meeting with Arafat as “very honest” and “positive.” But Arafat, who aides said had considered canceling the meeting because of the House speaker’s pro-Israel comments, did not appear with Gingrich in front of reporters after their meeting.

Gingrich has frequently criticized the Clinton administration for putting pressure on Israel to accept its proposal aimed at breaking the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

During his visit, he reiterated the view — one also espoused by Gephardt – – that Israel alone should determine its security needs.

But despite Gingrich’s rhetoric of support — and the importance of the U.S. Congress in the foreign policy debate, it appears that most Israelis understand that whatever Gingrich may say, it is still the Clinton administration that Netanyahu has to contend with.

Beyond the rhetoric, Gingrich did not detonate any diplomatic land mines issues during the visit.

Rubin was referring to this Tuesday, when, beyond his various criticisms of the speaker, he acknowledged that Gingrich’s trip had gone “reasonably well.”

Last week, before he departed for Israel, the lawmaker said he would visit the site of the future U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, provoking criticism from Palestinian officials who said the visit would undermine their efforts to secure part of the city as the capital of a future Palestinian state. They also said it could prompt Palestinian violence.

But prior to his departure last Friday, Gingrich backed off from his vow to visit the embassy site, citing a request from the administration.

When he arrived in Israel over the weekend, Gingrich reaffirmed his support for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. But touring Jerusalem with Mayor Ehud Olmert, he drove by, but did not stop at, the proposed location for the embassy.

Gingrich’s statements regarding Jerusalem extended beyond his call for moving the embassy.

During a speech to the Knesset on Tuesday, Gingrich drew applause when he declared Jerusalem the “united and eternal capital of Israel.”

The same words are often enunciated by administration officials, but the United States’ official position is that the future of the city should be determined in final-status talks with the Palestinians.

Gingrich, who supported a nonbinding congressional resolution to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recalled the visit several years ago of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to mark Jerusalem’s third millennium.

“We in Congress stood with him them, and stand with you today, in recognizing Jerusalem as the united and eternal capital of Israel,” Gingrich told the Knesset.

His remarks drew applause — though from a less-than-full house. He was boycotted by some Israeli Arab legislators who walked out of the Knesset before he began his address.

While much of the controversy surrounding his visit had to do with Jerusalem, Gingrich also tackled a different aspect of the peace process, saying the U.S. Congress would consider giving Israel $1 billion in emergency aid to help cover the costs of a further Israeli redeployment in the West Bank.

“I think that on the basis of an emergency situation, I would certainly consider it. If we reach a peace agreement, most Americans would want to be supportive and helpful,” Gingrich told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet that he had asked the United States for the money, which would be used to build bypass roads and finance the dismantling of army bases in the event of a further redeployment.

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