THE EMPATHETIC powers of President Clinton were in full view Thursday during his short visit to Israel after the Mideast terrorism summit. But empathy like symbolism is no mean quality, and seeing the president of the United States tenderly placing a pebble from the south lawn of the White House on the grave of Israel's assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sent a strong message about the United States' stake in keeping alive the peace process between Israel and its neighbors.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres, moved by the sight, had already told Israel Radio shortly before entering Mt. Herzl, the country's national military cemetery, "Everything he does points to an extraordinary friendship [for Israel] ...It really touches the heart."
Israel needs those gestures, as it struggles to cope with the recent horrific deaths of 62 people, including the perpetrators, in bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Those terrorist acts have hardened the opinions of many Israelis, giving rise to the possibility that Mr. Peres will face defeat by a candidate who is loudly critical of the peace process. In short, the bombings have created a climate very different from the outpourings that followed the Rabin assassination by a right-wing Israeli. The survival of the peace process is by no means assured.
It helps that the president's empathy was accompanied by a new aid package, channeling $100 million over two years for anti-terrorism initiatives. The money will pay for training, bomb-detection scanners, X-ray systems, robotics for handling suspect packages and other efforts. None of this is enough to guarantee the safety of every Israeli. But then this is a nation accustomed to taking nothing for granted in that sphere.
The president summed up the difficulty of comprehending the terrorist mind when he said: "I wish I had it in my power to reach into the hearts of those young men who have bought some
apocalyptic version of Islam and politics that together causes them to strap their bodies with bombs and blow themselves to smithereens and kill innocent children. I wish I could do that."
We all wish so. But until the political and religious grudges that drive terrorism in the Mideast and elsewhere are put to rest, heightened vigilance and, eventually, a stable peace is the best and perhaps the only protection from these dangers. With all his empathy, President Clinton knows that.
Pub Date: 3/15/96