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World - Middle East

Clinton says Israel 'strong enough' to make peace

Netanyahu and Clinton
Netanyahu and Clinton


U.S. president heads to Gaza on Monday

December 13, 1998
Web posted at: 6:57 p.m. EST (2357 GMT)

In this story:

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton continued his pep talk on behalf of Middle East peace Sunday, telling a group of Israeli students that the Jewish people were "strong and wise enough" to reach a lasting agreement with the Palestinians.

"There are 12 million Jews in the world, driven from their homeland, subject to holocausts, subject to centuries of prejudice. And yet, here you are," Clinton said. "If you can do this after 4,000 years, you can make this peace."

On Monday, Clinton is scheduled to travel to Gaza to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and address the Palestine National Council, part of a campaign to repair the tattered Wye River land-for-security agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel will not continue troop pullbacks called for in the Wye pact unless the Palestinians fulfill their commitments, including curbing violence in the West Bank and abandoning plans to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state.

"No one can seriously expect Israel to hand over another inch of territory unless and until such an unambiguous correction is made," he said.


'Yesh breira,' not 'ein breira'

Clinton and Netanyahu addressed a crowd of students at a Jerusalem convention center. Clinton invoked two Hebrew phrases to paint a gloomy picture of their future if Israel remains engaged in a perpetual fight for survival with its neighbors.

"Perhaps you can live with that kind of future. But you should not accept it unless you are willing to say ... 'ein breira,' there is no alternative," he said, using a catch phrase employed by Israeli leaders throughout decades of conflict with the Arabs.

"But if you are not willing to say that, not willing to give up on hope with no real gain in security, you must say 'yesh breira,' there is an alternative," Clinton said.

In response, Netanyahu said that there is also a need for "courageous leadership" on the Palestinian side and a recognition that Israel is a "permanent factor."

"Unfortunately, we discovered that in their textbooks, Israel doesn't exist," he said. "It is difficult to make peace with a country that doesn't exist."

Later, at a state dinner, Clinton told the story of a conversation he had with his one-time pastor, who admonished him never to forsake Israel.

"Once in the mid-1980s, we were sitting together ... and he looked at me and said, 'You might be president one day. You will make mistakes, and God will forgive you. But God will never forgive you if you forget the state of Israel.'"

Clinton said the pastor, whom he did not name, had made 40 pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

Impeachment questions dominate press conference

Earlier in the day, Clinton and Netanyahu held a joint press conference, which was dominated by questions directed at Clinton about the pending impeachment vote against him in the U.S. House.

After Clinton said he would not resign and he would not admit committing perjury, Netanyahu admonished the press corps to turn its attention to the Middle East peace process, the purpose of Clinton's trip.

Clinton said that despite "serious political constraints" on both sides, progress had been made in the peace process. But he said further steps were necessary to ensure a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the strife-torn region.

Recent violence, Clinton said, was particularly troublesome.

"The promise of Wye cannot be fulfilled with violence," Clinton said, adding that the Palestinians "certainly could be doing better to pre-empt violence in the streets. This is a terribly important matter."

Jihad leader detained after Clinton threat

Four Palestinians have been killed this week in clashes with Israeli security forces. And a 17-year-old Jewish girl was stabbed Sunday outside a West Bank settlement by a 15-year-old Palestinian girl who said she timed her attack to coincide with Clinton's three-day visit to the Mideast.

On Sunday, Abdallah Shami, the leader of the militant group Islamic Jihad, was detained by Palestinian police in Gaza after telling a television interviewer that he would be willing to kill Clinton

"If I could, I would, with every method I can muster," Shami said. "I would not hesitate."

However, he went on to add that "I don't know of anybody in Gaza who is thinking of killing Clinton now."


Netanyahu stiffens position on Wye

While Clinton was more conciliatory toward the Palestinians, the Israeli leader -- who held two closed-door meetings with Clinton before the news conference -- stiffened his position that the Palestinians had failed to live up to much of the Wye agreement.

Netanyahu reeled off a list of alleged violations that prompted him to suspend Israeli compliance with the land-for-security deal.

"This was not an easy agreement for us," Netanyahu said. "But we did our part. And we are willing to do our part, based on Palestinian compliance."

Netanyahu charged Palestinian leaders with inciting violence and lessening security cooperation with the Israelis. He also wants the Palestinians to back down on their pledge to declare an independent state on May 4, 1999, the date initially set for the closing of a peace deal under the Oslo accords.

"This is a gross violation of the Oslo and Wye accords, which commit the parties to negotiate a mutually agreed final settlement. Mr. Arafat and the Palestinian Authority must officially and unequivocally renounce this attempt," he said.

Clinton backed Netanyahu on that demand, saying that "final status should be left for negotiations."

Sources: Arafat will allow charter vote

Netanyahu said Palestinians could also prove their commitment to peace if the Palestine National Council votes Monday to revoke clauses in its 1964 charter calling for the destruction of Israel.

Such a move, he said, would "reinject confidence into the peace process."

Diplomatic sources tell CNN that Arafat has agreed to allow a vote on revoking the charter clauses. Until now, he has maintained that such a vote was not necessary because the clauses were nullified in 1996.

The Clintons at Rabin's grave  

Clinton lays stone from Wye on Rabin's grave

Following the news conference, Clinton stopped for a private visit to the grave of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli opposed to the peace process. Clinton also met privately with Rabin's widow, Leah.

In a symbolic gesture, he put a stone on Rabin's grave from Wye River, the Maryland retreat where the land-for-security deal was negotiated in October.

First lady Hillary Clinton visited a village where 36 Arab and Jewish families live together.

"If all children could have this experience, we would be much closer to peace," she said on the steps of the school in the village of Newe Shalom, or Wahat as-Salam in Arabic.

Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, visited Jerusalem's Old Walled City and prayed at the Western Wall, the last remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. The Stanford University student also prayed in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, traditionally the site of Jesus' tomb following the crucifixion.

Jerusalem Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers, Correspondent Jerrold Kessel, and Reuters contributed to this report.

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