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NEWS ANALYSIS Gore’s foray into diplomacy poses risks and opportunity

JERUSALEM, May 4 (JTA) — By the time Air Force Two left Ben-Gurion Airport for the second and final time over the weekend, U.S. Vice President Al Gore had done much more than celebrate Israel”s 50th anniversary. He made his biggest foray into the diplomatic quagmire of the Middle East. Hoping to capitalize on Gore”s sympathetic ear, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had tried, in vain by all accounts, to persuade Gore that the United States” ideas in the peace process endanger Israel”s security. For his part, Gore, hoping to capitalize on his relationship with Netanyahu, told the Israeli leader in more than seven hours of talks that the time had come to think about the current impasse in the peace process in different terms. Gore prevailed on both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to ensure that the moment does not pass without progress because the opportunity may not return. Gore”s trip came on the eve of this week”s London talks, where U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright formally presented an American plan that includes an Israeli redeployment from an additional 13.1 percent of the West Bank. The staged further withdrawal would be contingent on specific Palestinian steps to crack down on terrorists. The vice president”s first public solo venture into the Israeli-Palestinian impasse could pose risks for his unofficial presidential campaign for the year 2000 if the process continues to disintegrate. On the other hand, in the event of an unlikely breakthrough, Gore, who used his Israel trip in part to reach out to the American Jewish electorate, would likely receive some of the credit. Regardless of the developments in the peace process, Gore”s trip, if his reception in Israel is any indication, has likely boosted his standing among many in the Jewish community. Gore, who stressed time and time again that he had not come to Israel to negotiate, spent much of his time expressing extraordinary solidarity— even for a seasoned politician — to the people of Israel and Jews in general. Gore sought to capitalize on some of the good will he fostered while in Israel and requested a last-minute meeting with Netanyahu, after a post-midnight session with Arafat, to explain what he had heard from Arab leaders. Gore left Israel last Friday for Saudi Arabia and returned Saturday night to travel to the Palestinian self-rule areas. He then went on to Cairo before returning to Washington early Monday. Although it was planned well before officials scheduled this week”s London peace talks, Gore”s visit to Israel evolved from what had been planned as a celebration of Israel”s jubilee to include a heavy dose of peace talks. According to a senior Israeli official, Netanyahu in part used the meetings to feel out Gore”s unity with Clinton and Albright, who are pushing the U.S. plan. The Israeli premier found Gore in sync with the administration he represents, this official said. Nonetheless, Netanyahu used the sessions to reach out to Gore. Israeli reports said Netanyahu, for the first time, committed himself to a larger redeployment than the 9 percent he had reportedly been willing to undertake. The trip came as many American Jews continue to wait and see how the U.S. peace initiative ends. Most of the organized Jewish community has supported the push by American officials to convince Israel to withdraw from more of the West Bank. Jewish officials have said that support would disappear if the United States put forward its own public plan that would include specific percentages for redeployment. According to a senior U.S. official stationed in Israel, the American team will publish its plan if Netanyahu and Arafat fail to reach an agreement. This official believes that despite what Jewish organizations have said, in the end most will blame Netanyahu for not accepting a plan that he said favors Israel”s interests. In any case, such a scenario suggests that the United States and Israel could be headed for an ugly public confrontation. The question is whether Gore, in the aftermath of his jubilee visit, will be isolated from some of the American Jewish criticism which could accompany that public confrontation. During his three-day visit, Americans and Israelis saw Gore the statesman laying a wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and meeting with top officials. They also saw Gore the mourner placing a stone on the grave of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; Gore the techno-environmentalist observing a solar power array at the Weizmann Institute of Science, where aides said he wanted to highlight Israel”s future as well as its past; Gore the campaigner speaking to some 400 United Jewish Appeal activists and meeting with a small group of big donors. But at almost all stops, it was Gore the friend of Israel, listening as a friend would, while reaching out to the Israeli public. Gore balanced the promise to continue America”s “ironclad commitment” to Israel”s security while calling for “maximum effort” by all sides for peace. “There is no distinction between our continued commitment to Israel”s security and well-being on the one hand, and our commitment to helping Israel achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting peace between Israelis and Arabs on the other,” Gore said at a televised news conference with Netanyahu. How the United States navigates these commitments, which Gore called “complementary,” will speak volumes about whether Democrats can continue to sell the Clinton administration as the most pro-Israel in the history of the modern state. A skilled politician who generally appears more relaxed in front of Jewish audiences than others, Gore dazzled his listeners everywhere. Apologizing in Hebrew for not speaking the language, Gore drew the warmest reception of all speakers at the state”s major jubilee celebration, where he delivered a heavily theological speech about the Jewish dream that aides said he wrote himself. Enthusiasm for Gore was evident at virtually all stops, including a visit by his wife, Tipper, to the Western Wall, where an American woman waded through the crowd to tell her, “Your husband gave a great speech last night.” Gore”s enthusiasm also came across in a meeting with UJA leaders and a toast at a luncheon hosted by Netanyahu with many visiting American Jewish activists as guests. “The generosity” that American Jews have shown “in honoring their heritage and the love of Israel is matched by the tremendous leadership that they have shown in communities throughout America.” The toast led one Jewish political activist to joke that Gore is hoping to capitalize on this generosity for his campaign coffers as he seeks the presidency in 2000. In contrast to his warm embraces of Netanyahu, Gore stood stern-faced as he posed for the cameras shaking Arafat”s hand prior to their meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Saturday. Although not nearly as effusive in his praise for the Palestinians compared to Israel, Gore recognized the plight of the Palestinian people in response to a question at a brief exchange with reporters after their meeting. “I certainly have a keen sense of the deep desire of the Palestinian people for peace and for a successful resolution of the process now under way,” Gore said after he walked past a Palestinian honor guard armed with automatic rifles. “As I said yesterday, we should not argue about the past or attempt to deny or quantify the suffering and pain that is very real for people who have experienced it in many places in the world.” Instead, Gore said, “We should concentrate on the future.””