News Analysis — Gingrich in Israel: Headlines, sparks but not much else

JERUSALEM — As if the Mideast peace process weren't in enough disarray, in walks Newt Gingrich to stir things up yet a little more.

In the last week alone:

*He exchanged barbs with Clinton administration officials halfway around the world.

*He reportedly encouraged the Israeli government to disagree with Clinton's policies.

*He inflamed Palestinians with his remarks about Jerusalem belonging totally to Israel.

Mostly, he managed to manufacture headlines as if he owned the press.

When the dust settled, and the Georgia Republican and his bipartisan congressional delegation headed home, little had changed in the overall picture. Certainly, the political realities of the peace process remained the same.

To be sure, the pro-Israel comments by U.S. House Speaker Gingrich and others provided a morale boost for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been under attack for his peace policies.

But beyond the welcome words of support, the congressional visit appeared to do little to change the fact that the Israeli government must still wrestle with the Clinton administration demand that it pull back from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank in exchange for concrete Palestinian steps to crack down on terrorism.

All in all, however, the trip made for a wild week.

Gingrich clearly dominated the delegation, which traveled to Israel to honor the Jewish state on its 50th anniversary.

His comments and those of his House colleagues, including House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), drew the ire of Palestinian officials, who said the legislators have no place in the peace process, and charged that the Americans' statements were only aimed at winning Jewish votes back home.

Whether he was looking for Jewish votes or the next Republican presidential nomination, Gingrich's remarks clearly had much to do with U.S. politics — some Democrats and Republicans have distanced themselves from what they view as the Clinton administration's unwarranted pressure on Israel.

That resulted in a veritable war of words, with angry barbs traded back and forth this week between the Potomac and the Mediterranean.

Tuesday, U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin lashed out at Gingrich, condemning as "appalling and outrageous" a comment Gingrich reportedly made earlier this month calling U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright an "agent for the Palestinians."

The same day, White House spokesman Mike McCurry described Gingrich's comment about Albright as "highly offensive."

McCurry also suggested that Gingrich's outspoken disagreement with administration policy could have a detrimental effect on the peace process.

"Impromptu cheering from the sidelines, when it's designed to affect some of the critical decisions that either party has to make, has got to have something other than a beneficial impact on the process," said McCurry.

Rubin also took up the cudgel on the same point: If reports about Gingrich's "willingness to provoke the Israeli government to disagree with his own government" are true, he said, those "would be rather stunning comments that would undermine the efforts we're trying to make to advance America's national interest."

Wednesday, after meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, Gingrich lashed back at Rubin, saying he was outraged that Rubin would attack him while he was "overseas trying to be helpful."

Gingrich described his meeting with Arafat as "very honest" and "positive." But Arafat, who aides said had considered canceling the meeting because of the House speaker's pro-Israel comments, did not appear with Gingrich in front of reporters after their meeting.

Perhaps one of the reasons Arafat gave Gingrich the cold shoulder for the press conference was because of remarks Gingrich had made about Jerusalem.

Even before the trip, Gingrich ignited tensions when he said he intended to visit a the site of the future U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. Those comments provoked criticism from Palestinian officials, who said the visit would undermine their efforts to secure part of the city as the capital of a future Palestinian state. They also said it could prompt Palestinian violence.

Prior to his departure to Israel on Friday of last week, Gingrich backed off from his vow to visit the embassy site, citing a request from the administration.

When he arrived in Israel, Gingrich reaffirmed his support for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Touring Jerusalem with Mayor Ehud Olmert, he drove by, but did not stop at, the proposed location for the embassy.

That crisis bypassed, Gingrich sparked another with statements about Jerusalem that he made Tuesday in a speech to the Knesset.

Declaring Jerusalem the "united and eternal capital of Israel," Gingrich drew applause and supported the widespread Israeli view on the matter.

The same words are often enunciated by administration officials, but the United States' official position is that the future of the city should be determined in final-status talks with the Palestinians.

According to an Associated Press report, Gingrich later tried to soften his remarks. When he was asked if the Palestinians had a claim on Jerusalem, he said, "The Palestinians and Mr. Arafat have to sit down and work it out with the Israelis."

But, he chimed in yet once more on the issue Wednesday when he told Reuters that "it's also a simple fact. I mean Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. No person I know believes it is going to cease to be the capital of Israel. And my guess is even Arafat doesn't believe it's going to cease to be the capital of Israel."

Gephardt added his opinion on the issue. As he told Reuters, "I think you're going to have to wind up with a situation where Jerusalem is the capital and maybe the capital of other entities as well."

The fact that the visit produced some fireworks shouldn't have come as a surprise. Gingrich has frequently criticized the Clinton administration for putting pressure on Israel to accept its proposal aimed at breaking the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

During his visit, he reiterated the view — one also espoused by Gephardt — that Israel alone should determine its security needs.

In his Knesset speech, Gingrich said, "We cannot allow non-Israelis to substitute their judgment for the generals that Israel has trusted with its security.

"If Israel is to take risks for peace, as she has often done in the past, it must be risks she accepts, not risks that are imposed upon her."

But despite Gingrich's rhetoric of support — and the importance of the U.S. Congress in the foreign policy debate — it appears that most Israelis understand that whatever Gingrich may say, it is still the Clinton administration that Netanyahu has to contend with.

While much of the controversy surrounding his visit had to do with Jerusalem, Gingrich also tackled a different aspect of the peace process, saying the U.S. Congress would consider giving Israel $1 billion in emergency aid to help cover the costs of a further Israeli redeployment in the West Bank.

"I think that on the basis of an emergency situation, I would certainly consider it. If we reach a peace agreement, most Americans would want to be supportive and helpful," Gingrich told the Israeli daily Ha'aretz.

Last week, Netanyahu told his Cabinet that he had asked the United States for the money, which would be used to build bypass roads and finance the dismantling of army bases in the event of a further redeployment.