President Clinton turned his attention from Iraq to another intractable problem in the Middle East Friday, applying renewed pressure on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to recognize “the need for urgency” in salvaging the peace process before it is too late.
Invoking the spirit of slain Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and his famous White House handshake with Yasser Arafat, Clinton called on the two sides to put aside their mutual mistrust and “live up to the letter and the spirit of their obligations.”
“In recent months, you have to acknowledge at least that the pace of change has slowed and that the bonds of trust have eroded on both sides,” Clinton said. “The answer is not to bemoan the present condition but to renew our resolve to move forward … Both sides have got to realize the need for urgency. The window of progress will become smaller with time.”
The venue offered powerful symbolism. The president stood in the East Room alongside Rabin’s widow, Leah Rabin, and his successor, Shimon Peres, who were there to present Clinton with their first “Man of Peace Award.” And while Clinton’s remarks were addressed to Israelis and Palestinians, the implicit message seemed to be that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should follow their example as peacemakers.
The perception of frustration with Netanyahu was fueled by the fact the two did not meet during the prime minister’s trip this past week to the United States, even though Israeli leaders nearly always stop at the White House while in the country.
The official White House explanation remains that no snub was intended and that schedules simply did not allow a meeting. Aides said the two will meet soon, perhaps next month. But the perception that Netanyahu was rebuffed was underscored by the presence of Leah Rabin and Peres in the White House Friday.
“It’ll certainly be seen that way,” said one senior administration official, who nonetheless noted that the Rabin ceremony was scheduled months ago. “There’s no question that the president is frustrated with the pace of the process … It ought to be fairly clear that this is not the old days when our calls were only on the Arabs to get things going.”
Clinton promised to “be there every step of the way with Israel,” much as President Carter was with Menachem Begin during the 1970s peace settlement with Egypt. The reference to Begin, who like Netanyahu belonged to the Likud party, was intended, aides said, to signal that Clinton does not take sides among Israel’s political parties even as he embraced Labor leaders Rabin and Peres.
But Friday’s nostalgic ceremony demonstrated his bond with Netanyahu’s predecessors, as Clinton departed from his text to reminisce about his friendship with them. Upstairs in his residential office, he noted, he has a silver tray Peres gave him, the yarmulke he wore at Rabin’s funeral and a small stone he took from the grave.
Clinton smiled as he described himself as “Rabin’s fashion adviser,” fixing the prime minister’s bow tie before a formal dinner. And he warmly remembered Rabin’s reluctance to shake Arafat’s hand as they prepared for the fateful peace accords ceremony in September 1993. Clinton urged him to do it. “There is going to be a billion people watching,” the president recalled telling Rabin beforehand. “What are you going to do?”
“All right,” Rabin finally agreed, “but no kissing.”