Gingrich backs Netanyahu in L.A. federation talk

LOS ANGELES — Attempts by the United States to put forward its own plans for settling Arab-Palestinian differences are wrongheaded and will only harden Yasser Arafat's stance, according to House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"The idea that the president can propose a U.S. map [regarding Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank] for a country he does not know is a disaster," the Georgia Republican said.

Gingrich spoke Tuesday evening on Middle East and domestic topics to more than 300 major supporters of the United Jewish Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

He charged the U.S. State Department with "astonishing arrogance" for allegedly substituting its own judgment for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

In a talk strongly supportive of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policies, Gingrich said Arafat has no incentive to make serious concessions if Washington sends another mission every time he gets into a tight spot.

"The Clinton administration has not held Arafat's feet to the fire," Gingrich said. "We believe that Israel must determine its own destiny, period."

Announcing that he would lead a congressional delegation to Israel next month to participate in the 50th anniversary celebrations, Gingrich said, "We must be constantly vigilant so Israel will survive for another 50 years."

During a question-and-answer period, an audience member pointed to the Jewish community's concern over preserving the separation between church and state and asked the speaker about his stand on prayers in public schools.

Without answering directly, Gingrich said he opposed "clumsy efforts to eliminate God from public life," and linked the decline in public schools to such efforts.

In a brief running interview after his talk, Gingrich acknowledged that there are some tensions between the Jewish community and the activist Christian Coalition, but that both share a belief in God and can work together on some broad issues.

Speaking without notes, Gingrich cited Theodor Herzl, Oxford historian Martin Gilbert and the 19th century French writer Alexis de Tocqueville to emphasize his points on foreign and domestic issues. On the homefront, he urged cuts in government spending and taxes and reform of the Social Security system.

Each audience member received a copy of Gingrich's latest book, "Lessons Learned the Hard Way: A Personal Report," which some analysts believe is part of the congressman's trial balloon for the next presidential race.

Queried on such ambitions, Gingrich said, "I have not made a decision at all."

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent