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News Analysis: Clinton Boost to Palestinians; Will It Come at Israel’s Expense?

President Clinton’s visit to Gaza and Bethlehem this week solidified the Palestinians’ standing as friends of the United States.

But the visit — the first by an American president to the Palestinian self- rule areas — has triggered concern in the Jewish community that this new friendship will come at the expense of America’s historic “special relationship” with Israel.

Clinton’s comments and the symbolism of the visit were widely interpreted as a boost to the Palestinian quest for statehood. For the first time in his administration, the president adopted the language of the Camp David accords calling for the “legitimate rights” for the Palestinian people.

The Palestinians consider the phrase a code word for statehood.

The Palestinians “now have a chance to determine their own destiny on their own land,” Clinton said in Gaza on a trip with all the trappings of a formal state visit.

Turning the tables on Israel, which had labored for decades to convince the Arabs to negotiate peace, the president told the Palestinians they had “issued a challenge to the government of Israel to walk down that path with you.”

The burgeoning U.S.-Palestinian relationship could mean continued rocky times for Israel if Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat continues to capitalize on the cool relations between Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“For friends of Israel, there is something very sad,” about Clinton’s visit, Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in an op-ed piece on the eve of the president’s trip.

“The visit should have been a glorious occasion, marking not only Israel’s 50th anniversary but also an extraordinary relationship between the world’s only remaining superpower and the diminutive but vigorous Jewish democratic state,” he wrote.

“But instead of marking a celebration, or serving as an occasion for Israel to express its gratitude to the American people for the constancy of their support, and to a president recognized universally as `the best friend Israel ever had in the White House,’ this visit will take place in a contentious and ugly atmosphere that dramatizes, above all, the deterioration in the relationship.”

Many longtime Jewish activists have begun to focus on how this deterioration, coupled with the growing Arafat-Clinton relationship, will affect Israel.

“Ultimately I think it will be troublesome,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “I have that queasy feeling” that the improved American-Palestinian relationship “may be done at the expense of the special relationship with Israel.”

In fact, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has already begun to lay the groundwork to lobby Congress to serve as a counterweight against the Clinton administration on critical final-status issues, including statehood.

While Israel may lose some short-term battles, some Middle East analysts believe the Jewish state’s special alliance with the United States is not in jeopardy.

The U.S.-Israel relationship is “something quite extraordinary and unique in the annals of diplomacy,” said Daniel Pipes, editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

In fact, this week’s trip is Clinton’s fourth to Israel since becoming president. He is the only president to visit Israel more than once while in office, the White House pointed out.

“America’s relations with Arabs have gone up and down, and have not fundamentally affected the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Pipes said.

“I’m concerned about the short-term tactical relationship but not the long-term strategic” one, said Pipes, who is predicting a confrontation between the United States and Israel on the peace process.

If this week’s trip is any indication, the Palestinians will continue to score points at Israel’s expense.

Instead of improving relations between the United States and Israel, Clinton’s trip heightened tensions with Netanyahu.

The two leaders sparred over Israel’s suspension of the Wye peace accords, with the United States openly accusing the Jewish state of imposing new conditions on the Palestinians not agreed to at the negotiating table.

The largest flare-up came over the explosive issue of Palestinian prisoners.

Israel has refused to release prisoners with “blood on their hands” and freed 150 common criminals in the first round of releases it agreed to with the Palestinians.

While the United States has sided with Israel in the dispute over the release, Clinton gave Palestinians a presidential endorsement on the larger issue by equating the Israeli orphans of terror with prisoners’ families.

The president spoke movingly of four Palestinian children he met who pleaded with him to help convince Israel to release their fathers from Israeli prisons.

“Would you forget your daughter?” Nihad Zakout, 11, asked the president, in an emotional plea to pressure Israel to release her father.

“No, not for one second,” Clinton responded, telling the girl, “Your father will be very proud of you.”

The exchange moved U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to tears.

In a speech to the Palestinians, Clinton compared the children to a group of Israeli children he said he had met the night before whose fathers were killed by Palestinians.

“Both children brought tears to my eyes. We have to find a way for both sets of children to get their lives back and to go forward,” Clinton said. “We must acknowledge that neither side has a monopoly on pain or virtue.”

The remarks incensed Netanyahu, who was quick to point out that the 11-year- old’s father is serving a life sentence for killing an Israeli.

The prime minister reportedly reminded Albright that at least the fathers of the Palestinian children are alive. The same could not be said for the Israeli children’s parents, he told the secretary of state, according to Israeli officials.

To drive his point home, the Israeli premier asked Albright if the United States would release the terrorists jailed for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

“Of course, there is no symmetry between us and the Palestinians. It is not us who sent out murderers, not us who sent out car bombs,” Netanyahu told reporters after Clinton’s speech. “The place for someone who kills innocent people is behind bars,” he said.

Albright later sought to calm frayed nerves telling reporters that Clinton was “drawing the parallel of the children being in pain, and the fact that there were tears by both groups of children.”

“In no way did he draw any parallel about the cause of the pain, because the president has made very clear that there is no room for terrorism or murder,” she said.

But the exchange did little to satisfy Netanyahu, who raised the matter directly with Clinton on Tuesday.

The unusually sharp exchanges came on the heels of other Clinton comments that angered the Israelis.

As Netanyahu continued to seek Palestinian commitments not to declare Palestinian statehood and to stop calling for Israel to cede part of Jerusalem, Clinton said, “Neither side should try to stop the other from saying what their vision of the future is. That would be a terrible mistake.”

When asked at a news conference if he was sacrificing Israel’s relationship with the United States to keep his coalition together, the Likud leader said, “We are not engaged in a confrontation with the United States and President Clinton.”

Netanyahu likely got little comfort from Clinton’s story that his pastor told him that if he ever became president, “you will make mistakes and God will forgive you. But God will never forgive you if you forget the State of Israel.”

Turning to the Israeli leader and smiling, Clinton said, “I hesitate to tell it, because then you will use it against me.”

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