Pro-Israel lobby protests comment by Clinton on Palestinian refugees

WASHINGTON, July 5 (JTA) — President Clinton tripped a few land mines last week when he said the Palestinians should be “free to live wherever they like.” His comments during a joint news conference with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Thursday left Israeli and Jewish officials wondering whether he was signaling support for the right of Palestinian refugees to reclaim homes they left behind following the creation of Israel in 1948. Administration officials quickly provided assurances that Clinton’s remarks did not indicate a shift in U.S. policy. State Department spokesman James Foley said on Friday that U.S. policy on the return of Palestinian refugees “is what it’s always been,” adding that “resolution of this aspect of the peace process will depend upon the shape of the final agreement. “It’s a long-standing U.S. view that the issue of Palestinian refugees is a matter that has been reserved for permanent status negotiations,” Foley said, adding that, like all permanent status negotiations, “it needs to be dealt with and resolved by the parties themselves.” Clinton, responding to a reporter’s question about whether he would work as hard to return Palestinian refugees to their homes as he did to send ethnic Albanians back to Kosovo, said, “I would like it if the Palestinian people felt free and were free to live wherever they like. “It will also depend on what the nature of the settlement is, how much land will the Palestinians have, where will it be, how does it correspond to where people lived before,” Clinton said. Nabil Abu Rdainah, adviser to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, called Clinton’s remarks “promising.” The statement prompted an immediate wave of protest from Israeli and Jewish officials, as well as numerous phone calls from pro-Israel activists to Jewish organizations expressing deep concerns. Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak, who is expected to meet with Clinton in Washington in coming weeks, said in a statement that Clinton’s remarks were “not acceptable.” “This is apparently a misunderstanding, and the (Clinton) administration should clarify its position and correct it,” the statement said. Following the clarification, an Israeli official in Washington said the administration had taken a positive step that “helped to clear the issue.” Zalman Shoval, Israeli Ambassador to the United States, offered no direct comment but said the only way to deal with the problem of Palestinian refugees was “through integration and absorption in the Arab countries in which they live, as Israelis have solved the problem of the much larger number of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.” The American Israel Public Affairs Committee said it was “pleased that the administration responded so quickly, and we are also pleased that they have reiterated that the issue of Palestinian refugees is a final status issue that can only be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian authority.” The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, meanwhile, called on Clinton himself to publicly clarify his remarks. In a letter to Clinton, it warned that introducing the so-called “right of return” issue at this time, “even in a qualified way, will undermine Israel’s future negotiating position, as well as imply a bias on the part of this administration on a vital and fundamental security issue. “The way your comments are perceived, even though unintended, will raise Palestinian expectations and undermine the confidence in the people of Israel.”

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