December 1995, Page 20
Affairs of State
Unflappable Arafat Ignores Detractors in New York, Boston
By Eugene Bird
About once in each administration, the mayor of New York makes news and gains political points with his pro-Israel constituents by insulting an Arab head of state. Rudolph Giuliani simply couldn't resist when President Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian National Authority attended a special U.N. gala celebration at the Lincoln Center. Although the Palestinian party had received three tickets to the concert, the mayor's aides told them that they were unwelcome.
Arafat stayed anyway for a short time and when he left, his aides said it was to keep another engagement.
And just as in similar incidents stretching back at least 30 years and initially involving a Saudi king, the administration let it be known that this election-motivated insult to Arafat and to the Palestinian people by the mayor of a heavily Jewish city (who had just returned from a visit to Israel) was an insult to American diplomacy. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns, in fact, made an unusually strong protest concerning the insult to the Palestinian president, who so recently had been a guest in the White House.
The October visit of Yasser Arafat may mark more of a watershed in U.S.-Palestinian relations than the signing of Oslo II, the so-called Taba agreement. He met with 1,000 Arab Americans at a dinner in New York that raised $300,000 in pledges for the devastated hospitals in Gaza. While not all Palestinians may be convinced of the wisdom of the Oslo II agreement (some found ways to support the dinner without actually attending), it was a very great plus for the president of the PNA.
Of equal importance were his visits with two strongly pro-Israel Jewish groups. Some 100 members of the executive committee of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council attended a tense, tough but genuinely productive meeting with Arafat in New York. Even though two members began shouting "murderer" at him and had to be dragged from the room, Arafat was cool and said he understood their feelings. One Jewish leader said that he was impressed and that Arafat obviously was "becoming a statesman."
Arafat also met with some members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Those who arranged the meeting were instantly denounced by leaders of Likud-line Jewish groups, but the meetings were judged by the Jewish media as a very positive development.
Arafat then went on to Boston where, at the invitation of the Jewish president of Harvard University, he spoke at the Kennedy School of Government. He received a standing ovation when he called for sharing Jerusalem in the course of answering a wide variety of questions on the ultimate form of a peace settlement.
This level of acceptance is not complete either in the Arab-American community, where there is deep skepticism about the Oslo II agreements, or among the Jewish-American groups. Most of the latter had been demonizing the PLO, Arab rulers and Arab Americans for so long, while rationalizing chronic Israeli human rights violations, that it is difficult for them to reverse course and admit there are moderates and extremists in both camps.
Yet it is the American general public that is most important to the peace process. If American policy is ever going to become balanced in the Israeli-Arab dispute, it will be because the American public finally has begun to deal just as objectively with Israel and its American Jewish supporters as it does with the Palestinians and their Arab and Muslim supporters.
We are a long way from that point yet, judging by the actions of Giuliani and politically or religiously motivated Jewish and Christian Zionists who forgive the Israelis everything and the Palestinians nothing.
An American Essence
Perhaps the ultimate current judgment of the peace process was in the standing ovation Arafat received in Boston. It demonstrated clearly that, although forgiveness and reconciliation may be neither an Israeli nor an Arab characteristic, it is the essence of an American system that, in the long run, serves us very well.
On the same weekend that the president of Palestine was touring New York and Boston, at the national convention of Arab American University Graduates in Washington, DC, egghead Palestinian Americans were listening to stunning indictments of the Oslo II agreement by several speakers.
But then two Israeli-Arab Fulbright grantees and one West Bank resident of Bethlehem rose to question the speakers. One said, "What you say in criticism of the Taba agreement may well be true, but how do you explain or cope with the fact that both on the West Bank and in Gaza the people are smiling, are happy that the Israelis are leaving?" The speakers replied that of course they might be happy in the short run but they would soon come to realize how narrow the agreement was and how difficult it would become to live with it.
They may be right, but for now the American public seems relieved to hear from a Palestinian leader and Nobel Prize winner that the peace process is irreversible. So may be the change in American attitudes towards Arabs and Palestinians.
Eugene Bird is diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Report and president of the Council for the National Interest.