Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat came to town this week seeking Washington’s blessing for Palestinian statehood in return for postponing a unilateral declaration on May 4, when the interim Oslo period expires. Despite the fears of some Jewish leaders, he didn’t get it.
Instead, he simply came away with new assurances of U.S. friendship and a promise by the Clinton administration to accelerate mediation of the stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks after the May 17 elections in Israel.
A noncommittal Arafat refused to say much about his one-hour session with President Bill Clinton or his plans for May 4. An administration official, briefing reporters, said U.S. policy, which regards statehood as a matter to be decided as part of the final-status talks, remains unchanged.
The unlucky Arafat, whose visit to Washington last year came on the day the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal exploded across the nation’s front pages, once again saw his arrival buried under an avalanche of other news.
On Tuesday, as the Palestinian leader was shuttling between Capitol Hill and the White House, officials and reporters alike were focused on the frantic effort to break the negotiating deadlock in Kosovo and, when that failed, to prepare the American people for NATO action against the Serbs.
Arafat was trailed by a crowd of Mideast reporters, but the real action centered on the impending showdown with Serbia.
On Tuesday State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin indicated that Arafat’s meetings went about as most observers had predicted. He restated that the United States opposes any unilateral actions by either side, and added that “we would like the permanent status negotiations to be resumed as soon as possible, move ahead on an accelerated basis. We don’t think they should be open-ended.”
But he refused to be pinned down on a deadline for completion of the final-status talks — which were due to be completed by May 4, but which have, in fact, not seriously started.
Administration officials say they may set tentative target dates for completion of the final-status talks, but reject the notion of a hard-and-fast deadline.
That formula — greater U.S. activity on the peace process after the Israeli elections and speeded-up final-status talks, the forum originally conceived to consider the nature of the Palestinian entity as well as issues such as Jerusalem, water and refugees — was the best deal Arafat could get this week, according to Judith Kipper, co-director of the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The administration was simply never prepared to mention ‘statehood’ in any positive way for obvious reasons,” she said, referring to pressure from the pro-Israel community.
After the White House session, Arafat refused to provide details about his meetings or his statehood plans, saying only that he was engaged in a series of international “consultations” on the May 4 deadline.
“I listened very carefully to the valuable advice and opinions of President Clinton,” he told reporters. “The most important thing that came out of the meeting ... is that despite all the difficulties we face today, President Clinton has shown me the determination to move forward in the peace process.”
Palestinian officials reiterated that the impending deadline, set by Oslo, has taken on enormous meaning in Gaza and the West Bank, and that the date couldn’t simply pass with no tangible signs of progress.
David Kimche, a former division head of the Mossad, said, “I see very little danger that he will actually declare a state on May 4. He would be crazy to do so. But some politicians are trying to create a frantic reaction by saying he will.”
Kimche, now on the advisory council of the pro-peace process Israel Policy Forum, said that it’s not enough to simply reject any suggestion of statehood.
“You can either say Arafat is the enemy and we have to bludgeon him until he comes back on his hands and knees — or we have to say he was our enemy, but he’s our partner now and we have to work together and try to give him something positive.”
The administration was right to restate its opposition to a unilateral declaration, he said.
“At the same time it’s important to include a positive message — to make it clear that they would be supportive of a Palestinian state that came into being through negotiations with Israel. That’s the kind of message Arafat needed to come back with, and it would be completely in compliance with Israel’s interests.”
Sheinbein Mess Gets Messier
The prosecutor in the case against a Jewish teenager wanted in a suburban Washington murder faces a “logistical nightmare” as he scrambles to play a supporting role when the case is tried before an Israeli court.
Still, Douglas Gansler, states attorney for Montgomery Country, Md., said that his office is prepared to make the best of a bad situation following Sunday’s decision by Israel’s Supreme Court barring the extradition of Samuel Sheinbein, 18.
“We weren’t surprised by the decision, but we were very disappointed,” Gansler said in an interview. “In our view the decision was clearly erroneous. Samuel Sheinbein is no more an Israeli citizen than I am, or any other Jewish American.”
Sheinbein allegedly fled to Israel after the 1997 murder/dismemberment of Alfredo Enrique Tello Jr., an acquaintance. A second suspect, Aaron Needle, committed suicide in a Maryland jail only days before his trial.
Sheinbein and Needle were onetime students at a Jewish day school in an affluent Washington suburb.
Last month, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that since Sheinbein’s father was technically a citizen of Israel, the son was protected by the 1978 law barring extradition of Israeli nationals, even though he had never lived in the Jewish state. In an unusual move, Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein asked the court to review its own decision. This week, they declined.
On Monday Sheinbein was indicted in Tel Aviv, the first step in a process that Gansler said will take many months.
“The trial will begin in two to three months,” he said.
“The witnesses won’t all come over at once. It could take up to a year to play out.”
Gansler’s office will assist in gathering and transporting physical evidence to Israel and arranging transportation for witnesses. The frustrated prosecutor said he will also serve in an “advisory capacity,” and that he would help Israeli prosecutors bring the strongest possible case against Sheinbein.
Maryland prosecutors are hoping Israel will pick up the tab for transporting witnesses and evidence, although details have not been worked out.
“We can’t possibly afford it in our budget,” Gansler said. “And they’re the ones withholding a suspect from us.”
As a Jew, Gansler expressed concern about a broader issue.
“We have so many high-profile Jewish defendants in the county right now, and it’s hard to know why that is. Maybe I have a higher sensitivity to it, being a prosecutor and a Jew, but I’ve been surprised and concerned.”
A former Montgomery County commissioner and Senate candidate was recently convicted of trying to have her husband killed. Two Jewish teenagers are being held on murder charges in unrelated cases.
Jerusalem Embassy Update
The political war of attrition over efforts to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem continued this week as an unofficial deadline approached for a presidential decision.
In a letter to National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), a leading advocate of the move, offered what Jewish activists here say is a face-saving compromise.
Moynihan suggested that the president formally acknowledge the validity of the 1995 law requiring the move and “stress the United States commitment to relocate our embassy in Jerusalem at the completion of the Final Status Negotiations. In the interim the United States would designate an appropriate site in Jerusalem for ‘ambassadorial functions.’”
At the same time the legislator acknowledged the need to avoid “actions or statements that may have negative repercussions on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the current Israeli election campaigns.”
Moynihan, sources here say, believes that the administration will be in default if it doesn’t announce a waiver by April 1. There are growing concerns on Capitol Hill that the embassy question has become entangled with the administration’s effort to avert a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood on May 4, the end of the Oslo interim period.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that administration officials have assured him that “there will be no linkage to the Arafat visit or other issues.”
Hoenlein, while insisting that the umbrella organization has not endorsed the Moynihan letter, said that “the senator has put forward a meaningful proposal. Nobody wants to see a confrontation over Jerusalem, but if the administration is seen as thwarting the will of Congress and the law of the land, there will be a strong response.”
Most pro-Israel lawmakers want to keep the issue on the administration’s radar screen without provoking an all-out confrontation.
“There’s general disappointment that the U.S. hasn’t moved the embassy,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). “But people are hoping that there will be sufficient progress in the negotiations that it can be moved as part of the negotiations. Everybody realizes this has to come at the end of the process.”
Shedding Light On PA ‘Revolving Door’
Israeli officials are hopeful that this week’s Senate hearings on the Palestinian Authority’s alleged release of terrorists — including some who have killed Americans — will correct what they see as the Clinton administration’s imbalance in assessing compliance with October’s Wye River accord.
On the roster for Thursday’s session of the Foreign Operations Appropriations subcommittee are Assistant Secretary of State for Mideast Affairs Martin Indyk, Palestinian and Israeli representatives and relatives of several victims — including Stephen Flatow, whose daughter, Alisa, was killed in 1995.
Dore Gold, Israel’s United Nations ambassador, said that a key part of the Wye River formula was the demand that the Palestinians “put an end to the revolving door. We had too many situations where we had attacks against Israelis, and the terrorists would go to Jericho or some other city, have an instant trial and then be seen drinking coffee in a coffee shop two days later.”
About 200 Palestinians have been released since mid-December without the American vetting process laid out in the Wye accord, Gold said. “About 20 of them are unquestionable, hard terrorists. This is simply a massive violation.”
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