Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Former President Bill Clinton, on a two-day visit to Israel, came with a message for both the Israelis and Palestinians: He told Israelis not to give up on the dream of peace and he told Palestinians they had made a 'terrible mistake' by turning to violence and terrorism.
Clinton, who is in the region for the first time since leaving office, was the guest of Tel Aviv University, which awarded him an honorary doctorate degree.
The former U.S. president, who captured the hearts of Israelis while in office, was welcomed just as warmly this time, even though the peace process he sought so hard to establish is in shambles after 15 months of terrorism and bloodshed.
The ceremony, held at a Tel Aviv hotel, was a $1000 a plate fundraiser dinner for the university.
The guest list was a veritable who's who of Israeli politicians and business leaders, and it included current U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk. Indyk was a main player on Clinton's peace team.
Delivering the keynote address at the ceremony in Tel Aviv on Sunday night, Clinton said that both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have "legitimate rights and legitimate grievances."
Nevertheless, he said he believed that Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat had missed chance to strike a deal with Israel.
"I believe Chairman Arafat missed a golden opportunity to make that agreement," Clinton said, referring to the offer Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak made to Arafat at the U.S. hosted Camp David Summit in the summer of 2000.
Barak offered Arafat far more than any Israeli leader had ever offered, including more than 95 percent of the disputed territories and a presence in eastern Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount, Judaism's most holy site, which now holds two important Muslim shrines.
American and Israeli analysts have said Arafat will never receive as good of an offer from another Israeli government. Less than two months after Arafat's refusal of the offer, the Palestinians unleashed the intifadah (uprising).
"I think the violence and terrorism, which followed were not inevitable, and have been a terrible mistake. I think the Palestinians have to move against their terrorist organizations... I hope that many of the miseries of the Palestinian people can be alleviated if their leaders will do what is possible against the terror," he said.
'Following Israel's example'
Clinton said that since September 11, he has worked to encourage Americans, drawing strength from the Israeli example of stamina in the face of constant terrorism.
"In that work, we have been sustained by the powerful example of the people of Israel, who have lived year in and year out with the threat of terrorism, and continued to grow and prosper, and live their lives and laugh through their tears," he said.
"It is important that the United States and the EU [European Union] make it clear that they will never stand by and permit the destruction of Israel, by slow attrition or fast attack," he said. "I plead with you [Israelis] not to become so discouraged that you give up the dream of peace."
TAU president Prof. Itamar Rabinovich said that Clinton had been chosen for the honorary degree based on his friendship for Israel and contribution to Middle East peace.
"Israel has had other great friends in the White House, but I cannot think of another administration that evinced such extensive and profound sympathy for our country," said Rabinovich, who worked closely with the Clinton administration for four years as Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.
"In light of these relations and based on his contribution to peace in the Middle East and to unprecedented prosperity in the first half of the 1990s Tel Aviv University is honoring President Clinton by awarding him an honorary doctorate," Rabinovich said in a statement.
Two other former American presidents have also received an honorary doctorate from TAU: Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
Rabinovich also announced the planned Clinton Center for American Studies and Saban Institute for the Study of the American Political System at Tel Aviv University. The centers are being established to enhance historical and cultural understanding among Israelis of their country's closest ally, he said.
Great friend of Israel
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who spoke at the award ceremony, hailed Clinton as a great friend of Israel.
"I value your unwavering commitment to the Jewish people and your steadfast partnership with the people of Israel," Sharon said. "Through your tireless efforts and many visits here, you have captured the hearts of us all."
Editorials in local newspapers welcomed the former president as a hero. One television analyst commented that, "Clinton is more popular in Israel than in the U.S."
Only half in jest, some Israelis suggested that Clinton should move to Israel and become prime minister here when he finished his presidential term in the U.S. last year.
Israelis tend not to be critical of America or American leaders, no matter what. Officials rarely comment on any internal American political issue.
Political Science Professor Menachem Hofnung of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem said he believes Clinton's widespread popularity was due to his efforts in the peace process and friendship with the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
"Clinton was viewed by many Israelis as a friend of Israel," Hofnung said. "His friendship with Yitzhak Rabin was well-known." Israelis also appreciated his efforts in the peace process and the fact that he visited the region several times, he said.
Despite the fact that the peace process as Clinton pressed for it to happen never materialized during his terms in office, Hofnung said Israelis don't hold that against him.
"Sometimes they appreciate the efforts," he said.
"[President Bush] is not as popular here as Clinton but looking at how he has acted in Afghanistan and his backing for the Israeli government, he is quite popular here just as well," he added.
Bush has been far more involved in the Middle East than political leaders had expected him to be.
Clinton met with Israeli President Moshe Katsav and was due to have lunch with Sharon on Monday. He is scheduled to meet with Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer later in the day.
He will also visit the grave of slain Prime Minister Rabin, with Rabin's daughter Deputy Defense Minister Dalia Rabin-Pelosoff. No meetings have been announced with Palestinians.
Clinton presided over the signing of the first Israeli-PLO agreement between Rabin and Arafat in 1993 on the White House lawn. Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli radical opposed to concessions he was making in the peace process.
Clinton is well remembered here for his funeral tribute to Rabin, when his closing words " Shalom Haver" (Good-bye friend) made an indelible imprint on Israelis.
E-mail a news tip to Julie Stahl.
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