U.S. Policy is Evolving

by Sheldon Kirshner, The Canadian Jewish News, January 7, 1999

The photograph signalled a seismic shift in the United States' evolving relationship with the Palestinians. It showed a grateful, beaming Yasser Arafat clasping President Bill Clinton's right hand in fulsome appreciation.

Published last month, the picture was taken immediately after Clinton addressed the Palestine National Council in the Gaza Strip, an idea originally proposed but now rued by Israel.

In his speech, Clinton, the first American president to visit the Palestinian autonomous areas, endorsed the "legitimate rights" of the Palestinians and declared that they "now have a chance to determine their own destiny on their own land."

With these carefully chosen words, delivered after the Palestinians completed the process of annulling the clauses in their national covenant calling for Israel's destruction, Clinton moved one step closer to endorsing Palestinian statehood. The timing was significant, coming just days after politically beleaguered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Arafat to drop plans to unilaterally declare a state on May 4, the expiry date of the Oslo accords.

It was a far cry from the days when the United States, in deference to Israel's wishes, had no official ties with Arafat and considered the PLO a terrorist organization.

And for those with long memories, Clinton's very presence in Gaza stood out in sharp juxtaposition to two milestones which once defined Washington's attitude toward the Palestinians. In 1979, Andrew Young, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (UN), was forced to resign because of unauthorized contacts with a PLO representative. Some years later, a UN session on the Palestinian question was moved from New York City to Geneva because the United States refused to grant Arafat the simple courtesy of a visa.

For all the symbolism associated with Clinton's meeting with Arafat in Gaza, Washington is still lukewarm about the concept of Palestinian sovereignty. Last June, the United States sided with Israel in the PLO's successful bid to upgrade its status at the UN. And in July, Clinton said that statehood should not be declared unilaterally by the Palestinians but should be an outcome of final status talks with Israel.

Looked at in perspective, American policy toward the Palestinians has evolved in stages.

During the early 1970s, before the PLO shed its radical image, the Central Intelligence Agency maintained a secret channel to the PLO. In 1975, Henry Kissinger, the American secretary of state, promised Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, that Washington would not recognize or negotiate with the PLO until it embraced UN Resolution 242, accepted Israel's right to exist and renounced terrorism. The pledge was contained in a memorandum of understanding linked to an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula.

On Dec. 14, 1988, following Arafat's acceptance of these conditions, the United States opened a dialogue with the PLO. On the instructions of Secretary of State George Shultz, the U.S. ambassador in Tunisia, Robert Pelletreu Jr., launched a series of discussions with senior PLO representatives. Its ostensible purpose was to promote a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Israel opposed the dialogue.

On June 20, 1990, President George Bush suspended it after the PLO failed to condemn a foiled May 30 raid mounted by Palestinian hard-liners on the Israeli coast.

In March 1991, in Jerusalem, Secretary of State James Baker met with 10 Palestinian leaders who had close ties to the PLO.

In September 1993, after Israel and the PLO recognized each other, the United States resumed its dialogue with the PLO. In May 1996, several months after Palestinian suicide bombers killed 59 Israeli civilians, Clinton hosted Arafat at the White House.

Since then, Washington has funnelled $500 million worth of aid to the Palestine Authority and promised a further $400 million for development projects, thereby deepening its ties with the Palestinians.

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