The situation in Israel and Gaza is continuing to escalate, spawning overlapping humanitarian crises, regional instability, and fiercely competing narratives of culpability. Amid the carnage, President Biden visited Tel Aviv on Wednesday to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden’s diplomatic move both mirrors and devastatingly diverges from another visit concerning Gaza by an American leader: President Clinton and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat’s optimistic December 1998 meeting in Gaza City.
In sharp contrast to today, the outward dynamic between Israel, the United States, and Gaza in late 1998 was briefly hopeful.
I am by no means an expert, and I’m wary – given the extreme sensitivity of this issue right now – of being glib or biased in any way here, but I’m still going to endeavor to give a brief leadup to the visit: Five years earlier, in September 1993, Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin had signed the Oslo Accords, a plan to transfer governing control of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinian Authority over the following five years.
In November 1995, an Israeli right-wing extremist hostile to Oslo assassinated Rabin during a peace rally in Tel Aviv. Netanyahu, skeptical of Oslo’s aims, came into the Prime Ministership and – at least in part spurred by a series of suicide bombings by Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv– stalled the proposed transfer of Gaza and the West Bank and supported the expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory.
Still, at an October 1998 meeting in Maryland brokered by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Arafat and Netanyahu signed the Wye River Memorandum. Most notably, the agreement pushed Netanyahu to resume the transfer of 14.1% of the West Bank to Palestinian control.
The provisions on the Israeli side also concerned Gaza. They included declarations of support for the opening of an airport in Gaza, and for safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank.
On the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) side, Arafat agreed to remove several controversial articles from the 1968 Palestinian National Covenant, including those calling for Palestinian “armed struggle” and one calling Zionism “fascist and fanatic in its nature, aggressive, expansionist, and colonial in its aims, and fascist in its methods.” The PLO also agreed to anti-terrorism enforcement efforts.
In his remarks at Wye River, Netanyahu underscored the significance of the compromise: “This is an important moment to give a secure and peaceful future for our children and the children of our neighbors, the Palestinians. We have seen this moment.”
Two months later, Clinton traveled to Gaza. When he arrived on December 14th, 1998, he first participated in a ribbon-cutting with Arafat at the brand-new Gaza Airport. Next, he traveled to the main cultural center in Gaza City, where he and Arafat spoke before 1,200 civic leaders, including some 450 members of the Palestine National Council.
The speeches are available in their entirety on the William J. Clinton President Library’s YouTube channel.
The words of the two leaders are full of hope, even if they ultimately did not totally reflect the realities on the ground. Arafat both called out the pain that the occupation had caused Palestinians, but also argued, in decidedly poetic terms, that a new future was dawning:
Mr. President, the beginning of this century marked a major injustice inflicted on our Palestinian people. Today, we see a nearing, shining light. We feel a renewed hope due to your support. We hope that the end of this century will witness the correction of the injustice and the inauguration of a new era: The era of peace and freedom, peace of the brave. Didn’t I tell you that I see that light at the end of the tunnel?
Arafat predicted that Palestinians would embrace the new aims of Wye River and help to defend the security protocols outlined in the agreement:
Our people will not go back to the ways before peace. And we will not allow or tolerate any violence or anyone to mess with the security of both sides, both sides, both sides. And we will confront all attempts of violence and jeopardizing security no matter what is the source, no matter where is the source.
Arafat ended his remarks by broadening out his wishes for peace to the entire region:
And now, my brothers and sisters — and here I am talking from my heart to your hearts — we are talking for peace for the Palestinian land for the Holy Land, in Israel and in Palestine, and in Golan, and in South Lebanon, and in the Middle East.
Clinton followed Arafat. He stopped short of calling for a Palestinian state explicitly – something that only former President Carter had done to that point – but he opened his remarks with a vision of Gaza, assisted by the airport, as an independent member of the global economic and political community:
Hillary and I, along with Chairman and Mrs. Arafat, celebrated a place that will become a magnet for planes from throughout the Middle East and beyond, bringing you a future in which Palestinians can travel directly to the far corners of the world; a future in which it is easier and cheaper to bring materials, technology and expertise in and out of Gaza; a future in which tourists and traders can flock here, to this beautiful place on the Mediterranean; a future, in short, in which the Palestinian people are connected to the world.
Addressing Israelis, Clinton acknowledged the difficult road to implementing Oslo, and nodded obliquely to Netanyahu’s support for settlements and aversion to the process:
I want the people of Israel to know that for many Palestinians, five years after Oslo, the benefits of this process remain remote; that for too many Palestinians lives are hard, jobs are scarce, prospects are uncertain and personal grief is great.
I know that tremendous pain remains as a result of losses suffered from violence, the separation of families, the restrictions on the movement of people and goods. I understand your concerns about settlement activity, land confiscation and home demolitions. I understand your concerns, and theirs, about unilateral statements that could prejudge the outcome of final status negotiations. I understand, in short, that there’s still a good deal of misunderstanding five years after the beginning of this remarkable process.
Clinton then focused in on children, detailing parallel interactions from the previous day with Palestinian and Israeli children whose parents were the victims of violence between the two sides:
I’ve had two profoundly emotional experiences in the last less than 24 hours. I was with Chairman Arafat and four little children came to see me whose fathers are in Israeli prisons. Last night, I met some little children whose fathers had been killed in conflict with Palestinians, at the dinner that Prime Minister Netanyahu had for me. Those children brought tears to my eyes. We have to find a way for both sets of children to get their lives back and to go forward.
I ask you to remember these experiences I had with these two groups of children. If I had met them in reverse order I would not have known which ones were Israeli and which Palestinian. If they had all been lined up in a row and I had seen their tears, I could not tell whose father was dead and whose father was in prison, or what the story of their lives were, making up the grief that they bore. We must acknowledge that neither side has a monopoly on pain or virtue.
As he wound up his address, Clinton explicitly thanked the Council for ratifying Arafat’s agreement to cut out the most intense Articles of the Covenant, arguing that Israel would respond with generosity and empathy to the change:
I thank you for your rejection — fully, finally and forever – of the passages in the Palestinian Charter calling for the destruction of Israel. For they were the ideological underpinnings of a struggle renounced at Oslo. By revoking them once and for all, you have sent, I say again, a powerful message not to the government, but to the people of Israel. You will touch people on the street there. You will reach their hearts there.
And – just as Clinton had highlighted the pain of the Israeli occupation, he also criticized Palestinians who had supported the acts of violence by Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad in the years since Oslo:
The time has come to sanctify your holy ground with genuine forgiveness and reconciliation. Every influential Palestinian, from teacher to journalist, from politician to community leader, must make this a mission to banish from the minds of children glorifying suicide bombers; to end the practice of speaking peace in one place and preaching hatred in another; to teach school children the value of peace and the waste of war; to break the cycle of violence. Our great American prophet, Martin Luther King, once said, “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.”
I believe you have gained more in five years of peace than in 45 years of war. I believe that what we are doing today, working together for security, will lead to further gains and changes in the heart. I believe that our work against terrorism, as you stand strong, will be rewarded – for that must become a fact of the past. It must never be a part of your future. Let me say this as clearly as I can: no matter how sharp a grievance or how deep a hurt, there is no justification for killing innocents.
Like Arafat, Clinton ended with a sweeping and forward-looking note, listing other diametrically-opposed societies who had found peace over the course of the previous century and arguing that Israel and Palestine were on their way:
Think of all the conflicts in the 20th century that many people thought were permanent that have been healed or are healing. Two great world wars between the French and the Germans; they’re best friends. The Americans and the Russians, the whole Cold War; now we have a constructive partnership. The Irish Catholics and Protestants; the Chinese and the Japanese; the Black and white South Africans; the Serbs, the Croats and the Muslims in Bosnia – all have turned from conflict to cooperation.
Obviously, Israel and Palestine have not joined the list of reconciled adversaries that Clinton outlined. And despite Arafat and Clinton’s soaring oratory, many on the ground met the meeting with skepticism.
In the Jabalia refugee camp, 55-year-old Abdul Jalil Freih was pessimistic about the prospects for Palestinian autonomy, telling the Los Angeles Times, “Clinton will not do anything for us. It doesn’t matter to us whether he comes or goes.”
Sure enough, 1999 and 2000 would be deeply painful. The Netanyahu government would collapse shortly after the Clinton and Arafat addresses, in part due to the Prime Minister’s opposition to Wye River and further implementation of the Accords. The 2000 Camp David Summit between Clinton, Arafat, and Prime Minister Ehud Barak would end without an agreement. And the violent Second Intifada – stoked, arguably, by both a bellicose and violent turn by Arafat and by Israeli politician Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount – broke out soon thereafter. A blame game followed: the Israeli government viewed Arafat as backing the Intifada, while Palestinians highlighted Israeli resistance to the Accords.
But even if the Clinton and Arafat speeches were ultimately unfulfilled visions of a peaceful future, they can perhaps show that the despair of the current moment has not always been total, and that the prospect for diplomacy and non-violent change can some day be realized in the wrenching conflict.
For more on the current conflict, listen to Preet and Carnegie Endowment for Peace Senior Fellow Aaron David Miller’s conversation last week on Stay Tuned with Preet. And for more on the history of Gaza, read my Time Machine article, “‘History is Unfortunately Repeating Itself’: The Aroyo Murders, Ariel Sharon, and the Pain of 1971 Gaza,” written during the 2021 Israel-Palestine Crisis.
And head to my Twitter account for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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Catch up on some recent Time Machine deep dives into history:
- ‘Bordering on Cannibalism’: The 1997 GOP Responds to a Near-Ousting of Speaker Newt Gingrich
- ‘We Found Sanctuary’: Dianne Feinstein’s 1989 Pro-Choice Speech and the Political Fight for Reproductive Rights
- ‘Policies for the People’: A 1977 Carter Address and The Complexities of the United Auto Workers Strike