Flap over Official’s Remarks Spills over to U.S. Congress

The flap over recent comments on the Arab-Israeli conflict made by the U.S. national security adviser has spilled over to the halls of the U.S. Congress.

Competing letters are circulating on Capitol Hill regarding Sandy Berger’s May 21 speech at Tel Aviv University, in which he is accused of describing violence between Israelis and Palestinians as both a “curse and blessing.”

Some members of Congress are complaining that Berger’s remarks were misguided and asking President Clinton to step in, while others are supporting Berger.

The Jewish world is also continuing to weigh in on the issue, with some groups continuing to call for Berger’s resignation, and others defending him and rebuking his critics.

U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) is asking his colleagues to sign on to a letter to Clinton, asking the president to have the adviser explain his remarks. Saxton interprets Berger’s comments as saying violence may be a blessing because it could speed up peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

At the same time, three members of the House International Relations Committee who support Berger are circulating a letter saying that Berger did not in any way refer to violence as a blessing in his speech on the Middle East peace process. The letter, started by Reps. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.), Tom Lantos (D- Calif.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.), urges their colleagues not to sign on to what they called Saxton’s “well-intentioned but misguided” letter.

Berger maintains that when he used the phrase “the curse and the blessing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” he was not referring to violence, but rather the proximity between Palestinians and Israelis.

B’nai B’rith wrote to Berger asking for clarification of his remarks and in a response to Richard Heideman, the international president of B’nai B’rith, Berger explained his thinking:

“This proximity can be a curse if it encourages violence. It can be a blessing if it enhances the incentive to seek peace,” Berger wrote.

“My argument is that the proximity, or physical interconnectedness between Israelis and Palestinians, can deepen the incentive for seeking a solution.”

B’nai B’rith officials say they accept Berger’s clarification, calling it a reminder that the United States in no way countenances violence as a means to force additional concessions from Israel.

But Morton Klein, the national president of the Zionist Organization of America, who initiated the campaign against Berger, does not accept Berger’s explanation because Berger also said in his speech that “proximity is bound to create further friction and further violence.”

To say that proximity is a blessing makes no sense, according to Klein.

Klein has demanded that Berger retract his statement and has called for Berger’s resignation. The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs also called on Berger to be fired for his remarks.

In an open letter distributed by the ZOA, 21 American Jewish victims of Arab violence in Israel said Berger’s remarks are “appalling.” They called on the national security adviser to retract his statement and urged Clinton to replace Berger if he refuses to retract his words.

Members of the ZOA, who lobbied Congress on Wednesday on a number of issues during its annual mission to Capitol Hill, were asking members of Congress to sign Saxton’s letter, said Klein.

At the same time, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Americans for Peace Now have voiced strong support for Berger and rebuked his critics.

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