JERUSALEM (Dec. 14)
Confirming some Israeli hard-liners worst fears, President Clinton has given Palestinian aspirations a major boost with his visit to the Gaza Strip.
The symbolism of an American president making a first visit to the self-rule areas was evident from the moment Clinton’s helicopter touched down at the recently opened Palestinian airport in southern Gaza.
Palestinian leaders were soon hailing Clinton’s visit on Monday as a show of support for their goal of statehood, though U.S. officials denied that the trip represented such an endorsement.
Clinton has often stated that the issue of Palestinian statehood is a matter for the final-status talks between Israel and the self-rule government.
In an effort to maintain that stance, U.S. officials requested that no Palestinian national anthems be played for Clinton’s arrival at the airport, and their Palestinian counterparts complied.
Addressing the Palestine National Council in Gaza on Monday, Clinton urged both the Palestinian Authority and Israel to “move ahead to final-status negotiations together, without either side taking unilateral steps or making unilateral statements that could prejudice the outcome.”
The president’s admonition against unilateral action was, in part, aimed at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s continuing threat to declare an independent state next May, regardless of the status of the peace talks.
A day earlier, addressing the Israeli people from Jerusalem, Clinton said the Palestinian leaders must work harder “to avoid the impression that unilateral actions can replace agreed-upon negotiations.”
During Monday’s visit, Clinton spoke repeatedly of the hard choices that Israel and the Palestinians face as they pursue peace.
But even as he sought to appear even-handed in his remarks, a comment he made during a lunch with Arafat may spark questions as to whether U.S. officials have already reached the point of regarding Palestinian statehood as an inevitability — as some Israeli leaders have long believed.
At that lunch, Clinton said that for the first time in their history, the Palestinian people “now have a chance to determine their own destiny on their own land.”
At the same time, however, he devoted many of his remarks to describing the decisions that have to be made while traveling the road to peace.
Clinton hailed one of those decisions later in the day when he participated in a meeting with Arafat and some 1,000 members of the Palestine National Council and other Palestinian groups.
During his remarks, Clinton thanked the Palestinian officials for rejecting the anti-Israel clauses in the Palestinian charter.
“I am profoundly grateful to have had the opportunity” to see the conference attendees “standing up tall” to revoke the clauses.
“By revoking them once and for all, you have sent a powerful message not to the government, but to the people of Israel.”
His comments came after the Palestinian representatives jumped to their feet and raised their hands to show the president that they no longer seek Israel’s destruction.
In his Sunday address, Clinton sought to reassure Israelis about the peace process and U.S. support for Israel.
“The United States will always stand with Israel, always remember that only a strong Israel can make peace,” Clinton said. “We were, after all, your partners in security before we were partners for peace. Our commitment to your security is ironclad, it never change.”
Perhaps Monday’s biggest surprise came when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the decision taken at the Gaza meeting.
The premier had long demanded that a formal vote be taken at the meeting — but his adviser, Bavid Bar-Illan, was soon saying, “This is the cancellation according to the formula of the Wye River Conference. There was a vote, there was no question about that.”
“The issue, as far as we are concerned, is now off the table,” Bar-Illan added.
At a Jerusalem news conference, Netanyahu said the change in the charter came as a result of his government’s staunch stance that the move be taken.
“It was achieved, foremost, because we demanded cancellation,” said Netanyahu, who faces a no-confidence motion in the Knesset next week that hard-liners in his coalition have threatened to back.
Despite the Palestinian officials’ decision to change the charter, Netanyahu made it clear that they still had other obligations to live up to before Israel would carry out the next further redeployment in the West Bank, a move slated to occur Friday under the terms of the Wye agreement.
The Israeli demands include: seizure of illegal weapons in the autonomous areas; reduction of the Palestinian police force to the size specified in the Oslo accords; and cancellation of any plans to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
Political observers say Netanyahu cannot carry out the redeployment until he resolves the political crisis that threatens to topple his coalition.
Following the session in Gaza with the Palestinian representatives, preparations were made for a summit involving Clinton, Netanyahu and Arafat.
The summit, originally slated for Monday night, was rescheduled because of what officials described as tight timetables.
But Israeli media reports cited sources in Jerusalem as linking the delay to American pressure that in return for the Palestinian nullification of the charter, Israel stick to the timetable for carrying out the next phase of the further redeployment.