RAMALLAH, West Bank — Ending a four-day visit that often angered Palestinians with its unstinting support for Israel and its policies, a delegation led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) met with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat on Wednesday for a talk that both sides described as positive.
Gingrich, who also has sparked controversy with the Clinton administration during his trip by weighing in on the complexities of Middle East peacemaking, accused a State Department spokesman Wednesday of picking a fight with him while he is abroad on a mission intended to help the peace process.
State Department spokesman James P. Rubin on Tuesday assailed as "outrageous" a recent remark by Gingrich that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was behaving as "an agent for the Palestinians" in peace negotiations with Israel.
Gingrich continued the war of words with the administration Wednesday, even as he appeared to be calling a truce with the Palestinians. "If I am overseas coordinating with the Clinton administration, trying to be helpful, going to Ramallah today to see Arafat, I can't imagine why her spokesperson would want to pick a date like yesterday to have a personal attack," the speaker said, singling out Rubin for criticism.
Before traveling to Jordan, Gingrich and his bipartisan delegation drove to this West Bank city north of Jerusalem to meet with Arafat for a session that seemed in danger of cancellation until the last minute. They emerged 1 1/2 hours later, to speak of "very honest" discussions that centered on the peace process and how to push it forward.
The Palestinians also said the talks went well, though Arafat did not come outside for the customary post-chat news conference.
"I think we are creating a dialogue with the American Congress for the first time," Planning Minister Nabil Shaath said, emphasizing the importance of the session occurring on Palestinian-controlled soil. Members of Congress have had little contact with Palestinian leaders until recent years, and many are still reluctant to meet them.
"For a very long time, there was only one-way communication, and Congress and Congress members really had most of their time to talk to Israelis and very little time to talk to Palestinians," Shaath said. "I think we're just starting a dialogue."
Still, he said, "bias was there, and I hope it will go away."
In appearances throughout his visit, Gingrich repeatedly emphasized his belief that it is up to Israel alone to decide on its security needs, echoing views expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the reason he has resisted a U.S. initiative to restart the peace negotiations.
The administration has proposed that Israel hand over an additional 13% of West Bank land in exchange for concrete steps by the Palestinians to fight terrorism and rewrite their national covenant. Arafat has accepted the proposal, although the 13% figure of land to be turned over to his control is far lower than the Palestinians had hoped to receive.
But Netanyahu has turned the U.S. initiative down; analysts have noted that Gingrich has offered his support for the Israeli leader just as the administration is trying to put the pressure on him.
Gingrich also waded into discussions on the future of Jerusalem, the issue that is perhaps the most explosive between Israel and the Palestinians and that led to scuffles in the Old City this week. In a speech to the Israeli parliament Tuesday, he described the city as "the united and eternal capital of Israel," implicitly endorsing Israel's claim to all of Jerusalem.
In Ramallah, Gingrich reacted mildly to Palestinian criticism of his statements on Jerusalem. He pointed to a bill passed in Congress in 1995 that ordered the U.S. Embassy moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, adding, "There's a lot of disagreement about that."
At the meeting in Ramallah, the members of Congress listened attentively as Arafat and several Palestinian Cabinet ministers spoke, at times emotionally, about the deadlock in the peace process and their fears regarding Jewish settlement in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem.
Gingrich, sources said, also acknowledged to the Palestinians that his schedule was one-sided, with the Arafat talk the single Palestinian event on an otherwise all-Israel itinerary.