U.S. ambassador's peace suggestions upset many Israelis

Speech that recalls power of popular protest is criticized by right wing

January 25, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The American ambassador to Israel was speaking to Israeli college students and, it is safe to assume, had no intention of sparking an uproar.

This is what Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer told the students Wednesday: They could push for a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He noted, too, that Americans had managed to change government policy with street protests and by taking over the offices of college deans.

For those remarks, some right-wing Israelis accused Ambassador Kurtzer yesterday of meddling in Israeli affairs, and the criticism generated big headlines.

"He says, `Come surrender to this terror, and give parts of this homeland to murderers,'" Israeli parliament member Zvi Hendel, of the extreme right-wing National Unity Party, said of the comments Kurtzer made during a conversation with students visiting the Givat Haviva Jewish-Arab Peace Center, near Tel Aviv. "This is my interpretation." Hendel said. "I asked the prime minister to call him to order to retract his words, and if not, one should work to replace him."

Outside the hothouse of Israeli politics, Kurtzer's remarks would sound unremarkable:

"If a growing number of people will come to Givat Haviva and other institutions like this," he told the students, "it will create a kind of a groundswell that will be persuasive to the two governments involved that the people have had enough."

But his comments were recorded by Israel Radio and repeatedly broadcast throughout the country and became a major news item, sharing newspaper front pages with stories about funerals for recent terror victims, Israel's shelling of southern Lebanon and talk of war between Israel and Palestinians and even Iran.

The conservative Jerusalem Post, in a headline across the top of its front page, said, "Kurtzer kicks up another storm with call to pressure government." The liberal newspaper Ha'aretz was one of the few that gave only modest attention to the story but posted this headline on its Internet site: "U.S. ambassador under political fire for urging push for peace."

Kurtzer declined to comment yesterday on the criticism.

The latest criticism by Hendel was tepid compared to what he had said about Kurtzer two weeks ago, after the ambassador urged Israel to spend more money on its disabled citizens instead of on expanding Jewish settlements.

In response to that suggestion, Hendel stood in parliament and called Kurtzer, who is an Orthodox Jew, "a little Jew boy" - for which he later apologized at the urging of one of Israel's chief rabbis.

Israel's parliament is renowned for harsh speech and name-calling, and Kurtzer joins a long line of public officials vilified by lawmakers known for outbursts.

In 1997, parliament member Rehavam Zeevi, who was assassinated in October, used the same slur in reference to Kurtzer's predecessor, Martin Indyk.

Indyk wasn't as reserved as Kurtzer. "The last time somebody called me a Jew boy was when I was 15, and then he got a punch in the face," Indyk had responded.

To which Zeevi said: "Well, try me. You're a Jew boy."

Indyk told him, "You are a disgrace to your people."

Kurtzer's spokesman, Paul Patin, said hate mail was arriving at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.

"Mr. Kurtzer was not inciting anyone," Patin said. "He wasn't urging anybody to do anything. He was simply reciting American history, about what options people dissatisfied with their government have in a democratic society."

Kurtzer went out of his way to make that clear. At one point, he said: "My generation used to take over offices of college deans. I don't recommend that. But it was the kind of political action that let the power structure know we wanted change. ... And it worked, over time."

The White House has recently shifted its policy by condemning Palestinian leaders for failing to eradicate terrorist groups, and has usually refrained from criticizing Israel for its military strikes in the West Bank.

But Israel's far right is convinced that Kurtzer is urging an internal revolution. A group of Jewish settlers issued a statement asking that the ambassador "return urgently to Washington, and to learn there that terror must not be surrendered to or compromised with."

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