WASHINGTON, Sept. 10 (JTA) American Jewish leaders are lobbying against a possible meeting late this month between President Bush and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
Media reports this weekend indicated that the White House is considering arranging a meeting between Bush and Arafat to coincide with the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 24.
A Bush-Arafat summit might take place if talks between Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, scheduled for this week, are fruitful.
Barred from the White House for years for his involvement in terrorism, during the Clinton administration Arafat became the most frequent visitor to the White House of any foreign leader.
Since taking office in January, however, President Bush has refused to meet with Arafat, demanding that he first take significant steps to rein in Palestinian violence against Israel.
Earlier this year, Bush told a group of American Jewish leaders that a meeting with Arafat was a “trump card” that he intended to use to his advantage.
Critics, however, say that Bush must engage with Arafat if he hopes to reduce Mideast tensions.
Arab leaders long have pushed Bush to meet with Arafat, saying the administration is showing a pronounced pro-Israel bias. As proof, they contrast Bush’s reluctance to meet with Arafat with the two meetings he has held with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Jewish groups have applauded Bush’s policy and are concerned that meeting Arafat now, while attacks on Israel are continuing, sends a dangerous message about American tolerance for violence in the Middle East.
“President Bush has had a very firm position when it has come to Arafat,” said Rebecca Needler, spokesperson for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “He has unequivocally said he will not meet with people who support terrorism. We don’t think President Bush would change his firm policy until Arafat ends the violence.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the reports of a possible Bush-
Arafat summit were coming primarily from Arab groups who sought such a meeting.
“There is nothing that has happened that I am aware of in the last month which would give any type of reason for this administration to change its approach,” Foxman said. “President Bush has shown remarkable leadership in refusing to reward Arafat, and now is not the time to weaken our resolve.”
Jewish groups are concerned that if Bush meets Arafat while violence continues he will waste his trump card. Many analysts believe the Bush administration has few other tactics left to quell violence in the region after two visits by Secretary of State Colin Powell failed to bring a lasting cease fire.
Already, a contingent of Jewish lawmakers has expressed concern over the possible meeting. Reps. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) are asking colleagues to sign a letter to the president urging Bush to shun Arafat.
“A meeting with Chairman Arafat would provide credence to the terrorist actions in which he is engaged and imply that using violence as a possible tool is permissible,” the letter states. “A meeting would provide Chairman Arafat credibility as a partner in peace, while his actions over the past year demonstrate otherwise.”
National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice said Sunday that there are no immediate plans for Bush and Arafat to meet.
“The president has said that he will meet with people when it is necessary to meet with people to advance the cause, but there are no plans,” Rice said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “At this point in time there are no plans for the president to meet with Yasser Arafat in New York.”
The timing of the proposed meeting could be significant. The meeting is tentatively planned for a day after a massive Israel solidarity rally in New York, near U.N. headquarters. Sharon is expected to address the crowd.