Average Israelis seem unswayed by Palestinians vote

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SHOHAM, Israel — President Clinton was optimistic. He told the cheering Palestinian National Council in Gaza on Monday that the message they'd sent was important to the Israeli people.

"You will touch people on the street there. You will reach their hearts. I know how profoundly important this is to the Israelis," Clinton told the gathering of 500 PNC members. They had just taken a unanimous, on-their-feet, perfectly-orchestrated vote to nullify the clauses of the Palestinian Covenant calling for the violent overthrow of the state of Israel.

But a few hours later on the Israeli street, people didn't seem to be overly touched.

"This isn't going to change anybody's mind. The people who believed in the peace process before are still going to believe in it, and the people who didn't believe in it, still won't," said Aryeh Gonen, 38, a financier eating ice cream at the shopping center in the town of Shoham, near Ben-Gurion Airport.

Reactions to the vote broke, predictably, along left-right lines.

"I see it as one more step in the right direction," said Sara Levin, 29, a toy-store clerk who described herself as "leaning to the left."

On the other side of the political fence, Gabi Ornan, 34, a salesman doing some shopping, said he wasn't convinced at all.

"I don't trust Arabs. We can't live in peace with them. Bibi wanted the vote to show who's boss, or to give the Palestinians a hard time, or for his own coalition politics, or I don't know what. But canceling the Palestinian Covenant was never important to me," he said.

For years, especially since Netanyahu came to power, the Israeli right behaved as if the Palestinian Covenant was extremely important. It was a bone sticking in Israel's throat, and its cancellation would soften the hearts of Israelis, make them more ready to believe that the Palestinians had truly turned their faces towards peace, the more hawkish Israelis maintained.

And from his inspired tone, Clinton seemed to take Netanyahu and his supporters at their word. After all, witnessing the PNC vote was ostensibly the reason the president came to Israel and the territories in the first place.

But this allegedly historic, climactic vote had little effect on the Israelis who had supposedly been most disturbed by the covenant — the ministers and Knesset members in Netanyahu's right-wing government, and the pro-government citizenry.

And really, it was hard to see how the ceremony could win over many hearts and minds. In his speech, Arafat called for the vote not as a change of heart, not as a final, conclusive putting aside of old, violent ways, but rather as a simple, inexpensive step "for the sake of peace and the holy Palestinian land."

The obviously staged character of the vote made a poor impression on the Israeli right.

"It was a show," Ornan said. "If they had taken a serious vote, and the outcome had been, say, 70-30 or 80-20, in favor of canceling the covenant, then it would have been more credible. I still wouldn't have been convinced that the Palestinians want peace with us, but at least the vote itself would have seemed legitimate."

Shmuel Sharabi, an elderly candy-store owner who claimed to "know the Arab mentality," said he didn't take the vote seriously.

"This was nothing but a fake. If there had been a real discussion of the issue, like there is in the Knesset, then the vote might have impressed me."

"Not me," his wife, Tova, interjected. "They'll can say whatever they want today, and tomorrow they'll go back to their old tricks."

Settler activists and right-wing politicians, meanwhile, said that the vote was nothing but a show and that the Palestinians' true intentions were expressed in the continuous street violence in the West Bank and Gaza.

"Maybe the Palestinians canceled the covenant but I don't believe they've canceled their desire to destroy Israel," said Knesset Member Nissan Slomiansky of the National Religious Party.

The Labor Party and the left-wing said that the PNC vote was a positive step for the peace process, but that the real significance of the ceremony was in Clinton's quasi-recognition of Palestinian statehood, which the left portrayed as a Netanyahu blunder.

"Arafat should send Netanyahu flowers and thank him every day — never in his wildest dreams did he think Clinton would ever participate in a ceremony like that in Gaza," said Labor Party Knesset Member Dalia Itzic.

The political significance of the cancellation was up for debate. But as for its having won hearts and minds, it could be that the only heart and mind won over by the PNC vote was Clinton's.