Highlights

  • Bethlehem 2000: In honor of the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ and the onset of the new millennium, the Palestinian National Authority is launching the Bethlehem 2000 Project. A High Committee for the Bethlehem 2000 Project has been established, composed of religious authorities, individuals and institutions from around the world, to plan and prepare the ambitious program of cultural and religious celebrations. In a response to a call by President Yasser Arafat for international assistance and involvement in this historic project, a "Bethlehem 2000 Participants Conference" was convened in Brussels on 11-12 May 1998, in association with the European Commission, the UNDP, UNESCO and the World Bank. The aim of the conference was to increase the participation of the international community and engage governments, NGOs, the private sector, religious and cultural institutions and the media in the planning and promotion of the Bethlehem 2000 events, which will commence at Christmas 1999 and conclude at Easter 2001.

United Nations Secretary-General, Mr. Kofi Annan, in a message to the Participants Conference, conveyed his "heartfelt endorsement to the Bethlehem 2000 Project to bring together the past and future in a global vision of hope and peace for all peoples." Further, at the United Nations, the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People authorized its Chairman and the members of the Bureau to request the addition of a new agenda item, entitled "Bethlehem 2000", for the 53rd session of the General Assembly, in hopes for constructive dialogue and the unanimous adoption of a resolution on the celebrations.

  • Netanyahu Rebuffs U.S. Administration while Mrs. Clinton Supports Palestinian State: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a U.S. invitation to attend a trilateral summit meeting, along with President Yasser Arafat, in Washington on 11 May 1998, to launch the permanent status talks. He refused to attend the summit because the invitation was conditional on acceptance of the U.S. proposals to revive the stalled Middle East peace talks. In doing so, Mr. Netanyahu dealt a major blow to the peace process, risking and further increasing Israel’s international isolation. In fact, the Israeli position serves as additional proof that the Prime Minister and his government do not intend to implement the existing agreements between the Palestinian and Israeli sides.

The U.S. administration has been trying for some time to convince the two sides to accept compromise proposals on several elements regarding implementation of the agreements, the most important of which is the further Israeli redeployment from 13.1% of the West Bank. Other elements include security measures, the third redeployment, and cessation of settlement activities. The figure of 13.1%, far below Palestinian expectations based on the agreements, was reached as a U.S. compromise between Israel’s proposed 9% and the Palestinian demand for 30%.

Secretary of State, Ms. Madeline Albright, issued an invitation for the summit after the London talks with Palestinian and Israeli leaders, on 4 May 1998, failed to produce an agreement due to intransigent Israeli positions. Ms. Albright warned that the administration would not accept any changes in the proposals, stating that " the invitation to the Washington meeting is on the basis of those ideas, and watering them down is not in the works." She further added that "if agreement is not reached, we might have to re-examine our approach to the peace process." Ms. Albright also dismissed Netanyahu’s rejection of the proposal on the grounds of "security, " stating that the American ideas "are fair and balanced . . . and do not threaten Israeli security."

Israel’s confrontation intensified on 7 May as well, when First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, addressing a group of Palestinian and Israeli youths stated that ‘I think it will be in the long-term interests of the Middle East for Palestine to be a state . . . a functioning modern state that is on the same footing as other states." She stated further that the creation of an independent Palestinian State was "very important for the Palestinian people" and for the "broader goal of peace in the Middle East."

  • Clinton Addresses Arab-Americans: On 7 May 1998, President Clinton became the first sitting American president to address a conference of Arab Americans. He received a long standing ovation following a speech to a major conference organized by the Arab American Institute and the Palestinian American Congress. Discussing the U.S. role in the Middle East peace process and the recent U.S. proposal on redeployment, Mr. Clinton stated that "What we are trying to do is to get the parties over a hurdle so they can get into this final status talks so that we can stay on the timetable established a few years ago by both the Palestinians and the Israelis . . ." Addressing several hundred people, Mr. Clinton noted that " . . . the Arab American Community has made an enormous contribution to this country."