U.S. warming up to the Palestinians

WASHINGTON — President Clinton's visit to Gaza and Bethlehem this week cemented his friendship with the Palestinians.

The trip — the first by an American president to Palestinian self-rule areas — has triggered Jewish concerns that this budding affinity will come at the expense of America's historic relationship with Israel.

Clinton's comments and the visit's inherent symbolism were an obvious boost to the Palestinian quest for statehood. For the first time in his administration, the president adopted the language of the Camp David accords calling for "legitimate rights" for the Palestinian people.

The Palestinians "now have a chance to determine their own destiny on their own land," Clinton said in Gaza on a trip with all the trappings of a formal state visit.

Palestinian leaders consider such language a code word for statehood.

Turning the tables on Israel, which labored for decades to convince the Arabs to negotiate peace, the president likewise told the Palestinians they had "issued a challenge to the government of Israel to walk down that path with you."

The burgeoning U.S.-Palestinian relationship could mean continued rocky times for Israel if Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat continues to capitalize on the cool relations between Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Many longtime Jewish activists have begun to focus on how this deterioration, coupled with the growing Arafat-Clinton relationship, will affect Israel.

"Ultimately I think it will be troublesome," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "I have that queasy feeling" that U.S.-Palestinian relations may flourish "at the expense of the special relationship with Israel."

In fact, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has already begun to lay the groundwork for lobbying Congress to serve as a counterweight to the Clinton administration on critical final-status issues, including statehood.

While Israel may lose some short-term battles, some Middle East analysts believe the Jewish state's alliance with the United States is not in jeopardy.

The U.S.-Israel relationship is "something quite extraordinary and unique in the annals of diplomacy," said Daniel Pipes, editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

In fact, this week's trip is Clinton's fourth to Israel since becoming president. He is still the only president to visit Israel more than once while in office.

"America's relations with Arabs have gone up and down, and have not fundamentally affected the U.S.-Israel relationship," Pipes said. "I'm concerned about the short-term tactical relationship but not the long-term strategic [one]."

Regardless, Pipes is predicting a confrontation between the United States and Israel on the peace process.

Instead of improving relations between the United States and Israel, Clinton's trip heightened tensions with Netanyahu.

The two leaders sparred over Israel's suspension of the Wye peace accords, with the United States openly accusing the Jewish state of imposing new conditions on the Palestinians not agreed to at the negotiating table.

The largest flare-up came over the explosive issue of Palestinian prisoners.

Israel has refused to release prisoners with "blood on their hands."

While the United States has sided with Israel in the dispute over the release, Clinton gave Palestinians a presidential endorsement on the larger issue by equating the Israeli orphans of terror with the families of prisoners.

The president spoke movingly of four Palestinian children he met who pleaded with him to help convince Israel to release their fathers from Israeli prisons.

"Would you forget your daughter?" 11-year-old Nihad Zakout asked the president, in an emotional plea to pressure Israel to release her father.

"No, not for one second," Clinton responded, telling the girl that "your father will be very proud of you."

The exchange moved Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to tears.

In a speech to the Palestinians, Clinton compared the youths to a group of Israeli children he met the night before whose fathers were killed by Palestinians.

"Both children brought tears to my eyes. We have to find a way for both sets of children to get their lives back and to go forward," Clinton said. "We must acknowledge that neither side has a monopoly on pain or virtue."

The remarks incensed Netanyahu, who was quick to point out that the 11-year-old girl's father is serving a life sentence for killing an Israeli.

The prime minister reportedly reminded Albright that at least the fathers of the Palestinian children are alive. The same could not be said for the Israeli children's parents, he told the secretary of state.

To drive his point home, the Israeli premier asked Albright if the United States would release the terrorists jailed for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

"Of course there is no symmetry between us and the Palestinians. It is not us who sent out murderers, not us who sent out car bombs," Netanyahu said. "The place for someone who kills innocent people is behind bars."

Albright later sought to calm frayed nerves, telling reporters that Clinton was "drawing the parallel of the children being in pain, and the fact that there were tears by both groups of children.

"In no way did he draw any parallel about the cause of the pain, because the president has made very clear that there is no room for terrorism or murder."

But the exchange did little to satisfy Netanyahu, who raised the matter directly with Clinton on Tuesday.

The unusually sharp exchanges came on the heels of other Clinton comments that angered the Israelis.

As Netanyahu continued to seek Palestinian commitments not to declare Palestinian statehood, and to stop calling for Israel to cede part of Jerusalem, Clinton offered a neutral statement.

"Neither side should try to stop the other from saying what their vision of the future is," the president said. "That would be a terrible mistake."

When asked at a news conference if he was sacrificing Israel's relationship with the United States to keep his coalition together, the Likud leader responded bluntly.

"We are not engaged in a confrontation with the United States and President Clinton," he said.

And Netanyahu apparently got little comfort from a personal story Clinton told.

Clinton's pastor once told him that if he ever became president, "you will make mistakes and God will forgive you. But God will never forgive you if you forget the state of Israel."

Turning to Netanyahu and smiling, Clinton added: "I hesitate to tell it, because then you will use it against me.''