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Once Applauded as a Hero, Clinton Bows Out Amid Palestinian Catcalls

Mideast: Arafat's officials lament 'bias' toward Israel, look forward to Bush team. In Jewish state, right never warmed to U.S. leader, but most of left will miss him.

January 19, 2001|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — When President Clinton visited the Gaza Strip 25 months ago, he received a hero's welcome and the grateful fawnings of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Today, Arafat, or at least those around him, is openly contemptuous of Clinton and the U.S. "peace team" that toiled in the diplomatic trenches for the last eight years with, the Palestinians argue, little to show for it.

During Clinton's Gaza visit, stores sold U.S. flags and youngsters proudly wore T-shirts with the president's picture. Today, the same souvenir shops sell the flags of radical Islamic militants, and the American versions are being burned in the streets. This week, Gazans marched in honor not of Bill Clinton, but of Saddam Hussein.

The Palestinian disillusionment with Clinton is perhaps the most vivid of the shifting views held here of Clinton's legacy. From the moment in 1993 when he coaxed the famous handshake on the White House lawn between Arafat and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Clinton has invested tremendous personal energy and time in the peace process. He has been extraordinarily friendly to Israel but also built unprecedented ties with the Palestinians.

Like the Palestinians, Israelis are thinking a lot about Clinton these days. The Israeli right, which never much liked him, now lashes out even more intensely, accusing the president of trying to impose dire solutions on the Jewish state.

Earlier this month, Ehud Olmert, the right-wing mayor of Jerusalem, spoke at a rally of tens of thousands of Israelis that was characterized by boisterous boos and catcalls at the very mention of Clinton's name.

Roughly the other half of Israel, including most of the left and the government of caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Barak, continues to admire Clinton. A Tel Aviv pub is promoting him as its candidate in upcoming elections for prime minister. The top-selling Israeli daily, Yediot Aharonot, on Thursday dedicated 10 flattering pages to Clinton, asking the question, "How, how, can we live without you?"

But among erstwhile Israeli admirers of Clinton, there are grumblings about his failure to really grasp the deep-seated animosities long held by the parties that he tried to bring together.

"I see Clinton as a political lightweight who undertook a historical task to which he was quite inadequate," said veteran leftist activist Uri Avnery. "He had an immense, irresistible personal charm, and he had the feeling that with his charm he could solve all the problems. This was incredibly naive."

Still, Palestinians are expressing the most marked reversal of opinion, and they have begun to speak in glowing terms about the incoming Bush administration.

Arafat's official newspaper, Al Hayat al Jadida, heralded the end of the Clinton administration as "the end of the era of the Jewish lobby." A senior Palestinian official, briefing reporters, said he is confident that the new U.S. government under George W. Bush "will be 100 times better" than the Clinton administration.

Recalling what they say was the more balanced approach of Bush's father, Palestinian officials maintain that the large number of American Jews on Clinton's staff and negotiating team created a pro-Israel bias in U.S. policy. They were especially incensed when Clinton blamed Arafat, seemingly exclusively, for the collapse of July's Camp David summit. Arafat rejected Clinton's proposals, and the Mideast region erupted into violence two months later.

And a remarkable speech by Clinton earlier this month to the Israel Policy Forum in New York, in which he laid out in the most explicit terms to date his proposal for both Israelis and Palestinians to have pieces of Jerusalem as their respective capitals, drew sharp criticism from the Palestinian leadership. Similarly, Clinton's offer to dispatch his indefatigable special envoy Dennis B. Ross on one last push for peace was rejected.

"This will not be Dennis Ross' first failure," said Ahmed Korei, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament and a key negotiator. "All of his visits to the region have failed because they are based on biased positions in favor of Israel."

Korei, better known as Abu Alaa, said Clinton's proposals were a "seductive capsule full of poison."

Martin Indyk, the Clinton-appointed U.S. ambassador to Israel and himself an influential mediator in peace talks, bristled Thursday at the Palestinian criticism. He said Clinton had gone further than any other president in offering recognition to an independent Palestinian state with "Al Quds"--Arabic for Jerusalem--as its capital. And for Palestinians to fail to understand that was unacceptable, he said.

Speaking to foreign reporters, Indyk added that it shouldn't come as a surprise that U.S. policy is pro-Israel; a commitment to the Jewish state's security and welfare has been the cornerstone of many an administration's approach to the Middle East.

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