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Behind the Headlines: Arab Americans Voice Anger As Clinton Backs off Pressure

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With great pains and no clear-cut conclusions, the American Jewish community has debated for months whether the Clinton administration is exerting too much pressure on Israel.

But among many in the Arab American community, there is no uncertainty. In their view, Clinton capitulated in his showdown with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the president sought to revive the long-dormant Israeli- Palestinian negotiations.

Delegates to the 15th annual conference of the American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee held here last week expressed frustration that Clinton backed down from pressuring Netanyahu to accept a U.S. peace plan that calls for Israel to turn over more land to the Palestinians.

Attending sessions such as “50 Years of Biased U.S. Foreign Policy” at a conference dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the “catastrophe,” as the founding of Israel is known in the Palestinian community, delegates expressed deep dismay with the White House.

Many blamed the American Jewish community for stepping in to stop Clinton from pushing Netanyahu to make concessions to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

“There was a point when we thought Clinton was moving to pressure Netanyahu in a serious way,” said Hala Maksoud, the president of the American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee.

“Then the influence of the Jewish lobby” stopped Clinton as Jews “rallied to help” Netanyahu.

With Clinton widely regarded by the Jewish community as one of the most pro- Israel presidents, it seems almost inevitable that Arab Americans would disagree with many of his Middle East policies.

Ironically, however, many Jews would agree with the Arab position that it was Jewish political efforts that forced the Clinton administration to back down from its confrontation with the Jewish state.

The Arab American gathering, which brought together more than 600 delegates from around the country, is one of the largest annual Arab American conferences in Washington.

The four-day conference ended with a Capitol Hill rally, where hundreds of activists viewed a quilt with 418 panels that the Arabs say represent each Arab village destroyed during Israel’s founding.

There has been no survey of Arab American opinion on the peace process, Arab activists said.

But in interviews with delegates, a clear picture emerged that most had lost hope that Clinton would follow through with a tougher approach to Israel that the president had laid out earlier this year.

After initially refusing to meet with Netanyahu until he accepted the U.S. plan and threatening to re-evaluate the American approach to the peace process, Clinton, by all accounts, has changed his course.

After repeatedly missing American deadlines, Netanyahu has taken more time to consider the U.S. plan to redeploy from a further 13 percent of the West Bank in exchange for specific Palestinian steps to combat terror.

Israeli reports this week say Netanyahu appears to be waiting until the Knesset adjourns at the end of July to commit to a course of action.

What many Arab Americans see as a Clinton retreat has them seething.

“What Clinton has done, it’s not even a drop in the bucket,” Ghaith Faisal, a delegate from Annandale, Va., said, echoing the sentiments of many interviewed at the conference.

Hanna Elias, a Hollywood filmmaker who was one of the producers of the joint Palestinian-Israeli “Sesame Street,” which was launched earlier this year, criticized the “Jewish lobby” for “putting obstacles” in the path of peace.

“If the United States is a real friend of Israel, they should work to avert war. Clinton should exert more pressure to go back to the peace process,” said Elias, a self-described peace activist.

Furthermore, Elias said, it’s important to “educate Americans that Palestinians are not from outer space.”

“The Jewish community in the United States came from the Holocaust and is a community of fear,” he said. “You have to bring the Jewish community to a platform of trust. Then you can translate that into political terms.”

When asked what they would like to see Clinton do, delegates expressed near unanimity: pressure Netanyahu until he withdraws from the West Bank, stops settlement activity and agrees to a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Some in the American Jewish community would agree with the Arab assessment of Jewish influence in shifting Clinton away from pressuring Israel.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, led a lobbying effort in the Senate that resulted in 81 senators urging Clinton not to pressure Israel.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations wrote its own letter to Clinton, urging him to allow Israel to make its own decisions on security matters, including redeploying troops from the West Bank.

But there are also those in the Jewish community who supported Clinton’s faceoff with Netanyahu and have called on the president to continue his vigorous efforts to revive the peace talks.

Americans for Peace Now, for instance, intensively lobbied to encourage the administration to pursue its plan.

For its part, the umbrella Jewish Council for Public Affairs, in response to the “prolonged stagnation” in the peace process, last week adopted a resolution welcoming the Clinton administration’s continuing efforts to revive the stalled negotiations.

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