By now, stands of trees--stout and tall--have been felled so that columnists and editorialists can say that Hillary Clinton goofed in the Middle East. The unanimous verdict is that she should have quickly protested the remarks of Suha Arafat, Yasser Arafat's wife, and maybe not have gone to the West Bank in the first place. If the first lady resumes her vaunted listening tour of New York state, apparently this is the word she'll be hearing: klutz.
But permit me to say that while Mrs. Clinton was surely a bit slow to condemn the remarks, the wrong woman is being excoriated. After all, it was not Clinton but Arafat who said Israel was using cancer-inducing poison gas on civilians. And the remark was not, you might find it hard to believe, uttered in the course of the New York senatorial race but in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict. It is therefore about something serious--not New York politics but life and death in the Middle East.
The speaker, after all, was not some ill-informed villager but the cosmopolitan first lady of Palestine, as much at home in Paris as she is on the Gaza Strip. For her to utter such an ugly statement shows she believes some pretty vile anti-Israel canards--and she assumes her audience does, too. The most ominous interpretation you can put on Suha Arafat's diatribe is that she didn't think she was being all that outrageous.
If that is the case, who can blame her? The demonization of Israel--and of Jews in general--is standard throughout much of the Arab world, where some textbooks are polluted with language equating Zionism with Nazism. Palestinian political figures sometimes seem to be in a contest to see who can sound the stupidest about Israel.
In 1997, for instance, the Palestinian representative to a human rights conference in Geneva falsely accused "Israeli authorities" of having "infected by injection 300 Palestinian children with the HIV virus." A year earlier, Egyptian tabloids carried the rumor that a certain Israeli-made chewing gum contained an aphrodisiac that caused women to sexually assault men. In fact, the gum was made in Germany. (Maybe it contained an ingredient to induce punctuality.) In the Arab world, a sudden thunderstorm can, without fear of ridicule, be blamed on Israel or the CIA.
Under the Palestine Authority, such calumnies continue to be uttered and, to a lesser degree, published in the press. The Wye accords say this is not supposed to happen, and American diplomats say the situation in the press is improving somewhat. But these same Middle East experts also say that Arafat has done little to muzzle his subordinates and prepare his people for peace with Israel.
The Israelis, on the other hand, are attempting to adhere to the spirit of the accords. For example, they are issuing new textbooks that accurately reflect that the 1948 War of Independence was hardly the mismatch of Zionist myth and that, on occasion, Arab civilians were both intimidated and killed. To some, this is shocking, but it makes Israel no worse than other nations, ours included.
On the Palestinian side, however, not much is being done. The sleazy comparison of Zionism with Nazism--the wearisome belittling of the Holocaust or, just as bad, its expropriation as something that is now being inflicted on Palestinians--persists.
Some of this is understandable. Palestinians did lose their land. They were--and still are--occupied by Israel. Many of them live wretched lives in squalid camps and--yes--it appears Israel has hardly been vigilant about protecting the West Bank's ecology.
Still, Suha Arafat's remarks about the "intensive use of poisonous gas by the Israeli forces" echoes her husband's 1983 unsubstantiated allegation that Israel was "poisoning Palestinian schoolgirls." Has nothing changed since then? This must be how matters are discussed at home and among the Palestinian elite. It explains why Mrs. Arafat could so blithely use Hillary Clinton's visit to say something so ugly and just plain absurd. She believes. After all, she did not recant, she merely apologized for embarrassing Mrs. Clinton.
All this has certainly hurt Hillary Clinton's political standing in New York, but it has damaged an idealistic view of the peace process even more. It makes you wonder if Arab and Jew can ever live together or if separation of the two peoples is the only solution. The answer to that question is Yasser Arafat's to provide. If language is a window into the soul, then what can be seen by Suha Arafat's remark is ignorance and hate--and, by implication, a desire to settle the score.