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News Analysis: Israeli Premier Basks at Aipac After Cool White House Session

April 9, 1997
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After the White House gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposals a cool reception this week, he turned to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee for support.

Netanyahu’s meetings Monday with Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright produced no breakthroughs on the quest to get Israeli-Palestinian talks at any level back on track.

But the premier later found comfort in the cheers of some 2,000 American Jews attending the pro-Israel lobby’s policy conference, and from the group’s plans to mobilize support for his peace process strategy.

At the same time, Netanyahu’s meetings with American Jewish leaders this week were not all smooth. He held a tense meeting with Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders on controversial conversion legislation pending in the Knesset.

Whether this issue will affect pro-Israel activism remains to be seen.

The diplomatic impasse in the Middle East thrust religious pluralism aside at the annual gathering, which included speeches by Vice President Al Gore and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in addition to Netanyahu.

In a fiery 45-minute speech Monday night, Netanyahu called on the United States, Israel and AIPAC “to ensure that everyone does their part to wage the battle against terrorism.”

“We will never accept terrorism. Nothing justifies terrorism. Nothing. Period,” Netanyahu said to cheering delegates at the group’s banquet.

Earlier in the day at the White House, Clinton backed Netanyahu’s stand that the Palestinians renounce violence before talks can resume.

“No one should have to bargain to be free from terrorism,” Clinton said before meeting with Netanyahu. “It’s a precondition.”

On the broader issue of how to revive the peace process, however, the two leaders failed to agree.

For the first time in his administration, Clinton described a meeting with an Israeli prime minister in the frosty diplomatic language usually reserved for sessions that fall short of U.S. goals.

“We had a very specific, frank, candid and long talk,” Clinton said.

U.S. officials later said that the president intentionally did not include the adjectives “productive” or “fruitful,” terms usually assigned to meetings with allies.

In a veiled reference to recent Israeli actions that he has criticized, including construction at Har Homa, Clinton said, “We do need to continue the peace process in an honorable way that will bring it to an honorable conclusion.”

Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down after Israel began building at Har Homa, a Jewish neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem, and Palestinians responded with violent protests in the West Bank.

The Palestinians maintain that they will not return to the talks until Israel stops construction of Har Homa and freezes all settlement activity.

Israel is demanding, in the wake of last month’s suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv cafe, a clear commitment by Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat to end terror.

While Clinton and Netanyahu differed on peace process strategy, Gore used his AIPAC address to reiterate that U.S. support for Israel runs deeper than the current impasse.

“I’m here tonight to declare that during this complex period, in which the Israeli people continue to take meaningful risks every day in search of peace, this administration will never let Israel down,” said Gore in a speech filled with Hebrew phrases and prayers.

“Simply put, we will never permit anyone to drive a wedge between the United States and Israel.”

For now, however, the U.S. and Israel appear far apart on proposals to get the peace process back on track.

Clinton put the brakes, at least temporarily, on speculation that Israel and the Palestinians will move soon to Camp David-like talks.

“It’s important not to jump the gun” on Camp David-style talks, Clinton said.

“The first thing we have to do is get the process going again. There is a pre- existing process,” he said. “I think it’s important that we not put form over substance here.”

The presidential retreat at Camp David was the site for intensive Egyptian- Israeli peace negotiations in 1978.

Speculation that a similar round of Israeli-Palestinian talks could ensue arose after Netanyahu proposed that the two sides move immediately to permanent- status negotiations and aim to complete them in six months.

But Clinton was cool to Netanyahu’s proposal to expedite the final-status talks that will address the thorny questions of Jerusalem, settlements, refugees and Palestinian statehood.

According to Netanyahu, he and Clinton discussed “very crude and preliminary ideas” on reinvigorating the peace process.

U.S. and Israeli officials refused to comment on the emerging strategy until Albright — and perhaps Clinton — have a chance to brief senior Palestinian officials, who were expected here by week’s end.

In the meantime, Clinton “gave the prime minister some serious things to think about,” said White House spokesman Michael McCurry.

AIPAC delegates, meanwhile, sought to give Clinton and members of Congress something to consider.

“Clearly the war for Jerusalem has begun,” said AIPAC President Melvin Dow. “We’re at a critical period now.”

Delegates fanned out on Capitol Hill to muster support for a congressional resolution declaring U.S. backing for a unified Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty. The measure will be timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the city’s reunification in June.

AIPAC delegates convened against a physical backdrop of Jerusalem. Speakers stood in front of a 40-foot replica of the Western Wall topped with the skylines of Jerusalem and Washington.

From that stage, Netanyahu declared that Jerusalem will never be divided.

The Palestinians “still cling to an impossible idea. They cling to the idea that we will return to the ’67 boundaries, that we will redivide Jerusalem, that we will build a Palestinian state,” Netanyahu said.

“We certainly under no circumstances will ever redivide Jerusalem,” he said to thunderous applause and a standing ovation from a portion of the audience. “No other people will have Jerusalem as their capital.”

House Speaker Gingrich echoed the premier’s calls on Jerusalem.

We need to end this “fantasy on the part of the Palestinians” that they will win diplomatically what they lost militarily, Gingrich said.

Criticizing the White House, Gingrich said, “There should be no question of any pressure on the Israeli government to make any concessions” until Arafat complies with the accords with Israel.

The burden of resuming peace talks “should be placed on Arafat and the Palestinian Authority,” he said.

Members of Congress have begun to consider suspending the $75 million in cash assistance to the Palestinian Authority until there is a sustained crackdown on terror.

A letter is circulating on Capitol Hill calling on Clinton to halt the aid.

“Initially this is a shot across the bow to try to change the behavior on the part of the Palestinians,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the letter’s author.

“This will send a clear message to Mr. Arafat that the United States Congress will not stand idly by while terror is used as a chip in the peace process,” Engel said.

AIPAC and the Israeli government support all measures to gain Arafat’s compliance but have not endorsed Engel’s initiative.

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