The Palestinian Authority’s recent seizure of a monastery in the West Bank town of Jericho raises "serious concerns" about its ability to govern fairly, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani charged Tuesday, flanked by Russian Orthodox clerics and Jewish representatives.
"Unfortunately, this outlines some of the serious problems with regard to a jurisdiction that doesnít provide equal rights," said the Republican mayor and likely U.S. Senate candidate. "[The PA] isn’t a system of law, isn’t a democracy, it isn’t a lawful regime in that sense."
Giuliani also denounced Austrian right-winger Joerg Haider more than two weeks after he shared a podium at a Manhattan dinner on Martin Luther King Day with the Freedom Party leader, who stands to be a major player in an emerging government coalition. The mayor said he had not recognized Haider and that he would not have attended the Congress on Racial Equality event had he known Haider would be there.
"If I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have gone," he said.
Decrying the Jan. 15 seizure of the Jericho Garden Monastery by Palestinian Police who evicted the resident monks and handed the land over to the Russian government, the mayor called on the White House and State Department to intercede in what he termed a "human rights" matter.
Two nuns have refused to leave the premises, including Sister Maria Stephanopoulos, whose brother, George, was a senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and is now an ABC News commentator. The mayor called the conditions in which the sisters are living "shocking" and "brutal," although both apparently are free to leave the compound at any time.
Although Giuliani said he had been approached several days ago by members of the New York-based Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, a group that split from the main Russian church after the Communist revolution in 1917, the timing of the City Hall press conference was politically expedient.
It came on a day when the mayor was under fire from his likely Democratic opponent in November’s Senate race, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, for hostile anti-Clinton mailings by conservative groups, including the Republican Jewish Coalition.
The mayor said he had no prior knowledge of the mailings by such groups as Conservatives for Effective Leadership and the National Conservative Campaign Fund that deride the first lady as a "charlatan" or a "socialist." The letters were revealed Tuesday by the Daily News.
The press conference also seemed intended to shore up Giuliani’s pro-Israel credentials at a time when Israel and the Palestinians are entering final-status talks and the peace process is likely to be a key issue in the Senate race.
Joining Giuliani was Betty Ehrenberg, director of international and communal affairs of the Orthodox Union, which is critical of the Oslo Accords. Ehrenberg pointed out that "under Israeli rule there has always been freedom and access to religious sites and holy places … We’d like to caution that the peace process should not include pressure on Israel to cede land and property too quickly because this is whatís happening under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority."
Jericho was the first territory transferred to Palestinian self-rule under the Oslo Accords in 1995.
Calls to the Palestinian mission to the United Nations were not returned Tuesday.
Hillary Clinton has been an avid supporter of the peace process and the Oslo agreement brokered by her husband, and has called for Palestinian statehood as well as Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. Although she has rarely criticized the Palestinian Authority, she recently told the OU that U.S. aid to the Palestinians should be tied to their efforts to reduce anti-Israel agitation.
At a press conference prior to the Giuliani event, Clinton’s campaign manager, Bill DeBlasio, said only that "the [Palestinian] police should not be involved there." Clinton’s communications director, Howard Wolfson, later declined to comment on Giuliani’s statements, saying only that ceding territory to the Palestinians was "a matter for Prime Minister Barak and the Israeli people to decide."
Giuliani’s assertion Tuesday that "it would be a very big mistake for the Austrian government to have [Haider] as part of the government" follows a barrage of criticism from the Clinton camp that began when Wolfson questioned the mayor’s appearance with Haider two weeks ago. The mayor’s campaign had sought to taint Clinton by associating her with controversial remarks by a preacher at a Jan. 17 event commemorating Martin Luther King at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s headquarters.
Last Friday, the Clinton campaign released a letter by the first lady to World Jewish Congress president Edgar Bronfman.
"I’m sorry I missed your call," she wrote before denouncing Haider’s "record of intolerance, extremism and anti-Semitism" and vowing that she shares Bronfman’s concern about Haiderís political strength.
The millionaire Bronfman and his son, Edgar Jr., are major financial backers of the first lady’s campaign and those of her husband.
As late as Tuesday, Clinton’s staff was sending out releases asserting that Giuliani "won’t reject Haider; what will he say about conservative groups waging an ‘anti-Hill campaign’?"
After addressing the Jericho issue Tuesday, Giuliani told reporters that he had met Haider as well as some 50 other people at the dinner but "did not know who he was" at the time. "He was introduced to me as someone who participated in the Olympics," said Giuliani.
Wolfson replied by suggesting that the mayor "ought to read the newspaper more often."
"It is disgraceful that someone running for the U.S. Senate from New York wouldn’t know who Joerg Haider is. It shows an appalling lack of knowledge," he said.
Giuliani campaign director Bruce Teitelbaum returned fire.
"After kissing Mrs. Arafat, meeting with Al Sharpton, flip-flopping on Palestinian statehood and the status of Jerusalem, Wolfson is grasping for straws trying to create news," he said.
Giuliani told reporters that after the dinner he had consulted with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger about Haider.
"I tried to form my own view as to whether the criticism of him was fair," the mayor said. "I believe the criticism was fair."
Giuliani’s professed ignorance about Haider is inconsistent with a statement by his spokeswoman, Sunny Mindel, in November, when Haider took part in the New York Marathon and several Jewish activists called on the mayor to oppose his participation.
The mayor refused to do so, perhaps because one of the activists was Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Giuliani nemesis. Mindel said at the time that the mayor rejected Haider’s ideology, but left the decision up to the race’s sponsor, the New York Road Runners Club.