Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post of January 22, 1998
There was a dramatic moment on Tuesday afternoon in Washington during talks between US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, talks held in a conference room on the tenth floor of the Mayflower Hotel. Said the Israeli prime minister: "I would like you to meet two ladies I have brought with me to America."
The first guest, 44-year-old Judith Shachor, told Albright that her son was murdered by Palestinians in Wadi Kelt, near Jericho in 1995. She was followed by 27-year-old Sigal Megidish whose brother Uri was slain by two terrorists five years ago. Sigal added: "Today Uri's killers are serving as police officers with Yasser Arafat's militias in Gaza."
Sigal paused to recover her composure and added softly: "I do not seek revenge. All I want is that Uri's murderers be brought to justice." An aide present at the talks told us: "Mrs. Albright went pale as though in a state of shock. There was silence for a few moments. She had suddenly come face to face with the message Netanyahu had been pressing hard in his talks with President Clinton, "that he had a duty to the Jewish public who had elected him to do all in his power to ensure the security of Israeli citizens." The secretary of state asked: "Could you please give me the names of the two men. I'll raise the matter with Mr. Arafat.'
The several unscheduled meetings with Albright that day was a clear sign that the results of Netanyahu's latest meeting with Clinton had not gone as expected by the US administration. The State Department was convinced that Netanyahu had been sufficiently softened up to cave into to pressure to make major concessions to Arafat. Leak after leak demonizing Israel's prime minister - leaks eagerly seized upon by the gloating Hebrew media, anxious to rub salt into verbal wounds - gave the White House a sure sense of success.
Nothing demonstrated this arrogant approach more clearly than the fact that the president declared he would only meet Netanyahu once. For one hour. No lunch, no sandwiches, no tea. No press conference. No customary shaking of hands on the White House lawn. No charming, boyish Clintonesque smiles were to be unleashed at the man who had been treated in recent months on a level not far from pariah status.
True, Clinton has major problems on his hands, enough to preoccupy any man let alone a president. On a personal level there are Paula Jones's sexual harassment claims. The president had to testify for six hours this weekend on just what did or did not happen between them in an Arkansas hotel suite. On the international level he has to grapple with Saddam Hussein, daily becoming increasingly aggressive over the inspection issue, convinced that Clinton is a paper tiger who will never dare live up to his increasingly muted threats of taking military action against Iraq.
To rub in his displeasure with Netanyahu, the Israeli premier was kept kicking his heels for a full 10 minutes before being ushered into the presidential presence. But within minutes Clinton realized that a remarkable transformation had taken place in the man facing him. For the first time Netanyahu was business-like, sure of himself.
SPEAKING with a hitherto lacking authority, Netanyahu said he was committed to making peace with the Palestinians. "I come with a mandate granted by my cabinet. The Palestinians must fulfill their obligations. But this must not be a one-sided business," was the thrust of his well-presented, logically outlined case. He reminded Clinton about the US Note for the Record, drawn up at the signing of the Hebron Agreement. This document includes Arafat's commitment to abolish the "destruction of Israel" clauses in the PLO Covenant, the PA's promises to fight terror and extradite 34 Palestinian murderers to face justice for their crimes against Israelis.
Resisting requests to detail the depths of a future Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria, Netanyahu said firmly: "Israel has to keep control of area vital and necessary for its security." As an insider put it to this column: "It was though Netanyahu had been strengthened in the knowledge that there were now no weak links in the cabinet, ready to snipe at him either in private or publicly." Netanyahu told Clinton that his entire cabinet, including Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, "is united on the mandate that I bring to you."
If Clinton had done his homework, he would have known that the Israeli premier was not about to return home with his tail between his legs. On the eve of his White House appointment, the prime minister met with CIA chiefs to outline the one-sidedness of demands made on Israel. Clinton should have also heeded the strong backing of US Jews, rebelling against the pressure levered against Netanyahu. Support was also well-evident among pro-Israel Christian groups and many senators and congressmen.
Clinton was forced to devote an extra hour to his guest who, for the first time, was standing by his guns. An unscheduled meeting for a full two-and-a-half hours in the White House on Tuesday evening ended with Netanyahu firmly resisting calls to "make an immediate West Bank withdrawal." His answer was firm: "I will not imperil my people, the people of Israel." Like a tennis player firing back bullet-like serves with a sure touch, Netanyahu held his ground.
Clearly, in order to pacify Yasser Arafat in his meeting today at the White House, a lot of US rethinking will have to be done to cobble together a compromise to suit all parties. Even if such trivialities such as Paula Jones and Saddam Hussein have to take a back seat.
(c) Jerusalem Post, 1998