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Sen. Clinton Blasts Yasser Arafat As Israel Eases His Travel Restrictions

February 25, 2002
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After some of the worst bloodletting since the intifada began, there were indications this week that Israel and the Palestinian Authority are ready to try to reduce tensions.

But as often happens in the Middle East, there were still enough simmering tensions between the two sides to create the suspicion that any decline in violence could be short-lived indeed.

Following lengthy deliberations, Israel’s Security Cabinet decided Sunday that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat would be permitted to travel — but only within the West Bank town of Ramallah.

The decision came a day after Sen. Hillary Clinton, on a solidarity visit to Israel, blamed Arafat for failing to stop violence.

Speaking in Jerusalem on Saturday, the Democratic senator from New York declared that Arafat “has failed as a leader, and his inability or unwillingness to rein in forces of violence and terrorism demonstrates he is not ready or willing to be a leader.”

Clinton was addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations at the start of a 36-hour solidarity visit to Israel.

Arafat had been under virtual house arrest in his Ramallah office since December, when Israeli officials said he would be confined there until he arrested those responsible for last October’s assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon convened the Security Cabinet on Sunday to discuss whether to lift the travel ban after the Palestinian Authority announced last week that it had arrested three suspects in the assassination.

Israel also decided over the weekend to stop attacking Palestinian targets in order to give the Palestinian Authority a chance to halt violence. The decision came after Israeli and Palestinian security officials met Feb. 21 — their first such meeting in several weeks.

The joint Israeli-Palestinian security committee was due to meet Sunday night to continue discussions on ways to implement the agreement.

But after Israel refused to grant Arafat complete freedom of movement, the Palestinians said they would not participate in the meeting.

Palestinian Authority official Saeb Erekat called the continued travel restrictions on Arafat “shameless.”

From the Israeli left, opposition leader Yossi Sarid said the Cabinet decision reflected the government’s ongoing efforts to humiliate the Palestinian leader.

But Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer — who instructed the tanks encircling Arafat’s compound to withdraw in accordance with the Security Cabinet decision — expressed hope that even the smallest steps would lead to a cease-fire.

“Even though we are just at the beginning of the journey, I hope it will lead to a cease-fire,” Ben-Eliezer was quoted as saying during a meeting with Clinton.

Israel Radio quoted Palestinian sources in Ramallah as saying the Security Cabinet decision was meaningless, because Arafat previously had moved unhindered in Ramallah. Last week, they said, Arafat visited wounded in a hospital and prayed at a local mosque.

The Security Cabinet decision appeared to placate internal political pressures within the Sharon government — between ministers concerned that Arafat’s isolation was strengthening him politically and those who insisted that Arafat’s movements remain restricted until the Palestinian Authority make significant efforts to crack down on terror.

Public Security Minister Uzi Landau, who abstained in the Security Cabinet vote, expressed satisfaction with the outcome.

Landau said the decision was proof that the government was standing on its principles, and could not be accused of “zigzagging” on its policy toward Arafat.

But Labor minister Matan Vilnai, said the decision was a reflection of the Labor Party’s participation in the national unity government.

“If we were not part of the government, the outcome could have been different,” Vilnai said.

Meanwhile, Clinton, during her brief visit to Israel, took a tough stand on Arafat, saying he bore responsibility for the violence.

Addressing the Conference of Presidents, Clinton blamed Arafat for the collapse of the peace efforts spearheaded by her husband when he was president.

“The responsibility for the violence since the collapse of the Camp David discussions rests squarely” on Arafat’s shoulders, she said.

On Sunday, Clinton met with Sharon and other Israeli officials.

She also visited the Western Wall, met with survivors of recent terrorist attacks and visited the Jerusalem pizzeria that was the site of a suicide bombing last August that killed 15 people and wounded more than 130 others.

Speaking at Sbarro’s pizzeria, she said it was important to come to the restaurant to show that life goes on, despite the threat of terrorism.

Clinton added that the Sept. 11 attacks had deepened the ties between Israelis and New Yorkers.

“Certainly if I had come before Sept. 11, I would have felt the same sense of commitment to Israel’s future and to Israel’s security. But following Sept. 11, it’s an even more personal and profound commitment that I and so many New Yorkers and Americans feel.”

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