JERUSALEM -- When Nihad Zakout met President Clinton during his Middle East tour, the Palestinian schoolgirl made a tearful plea for the freedom of her father imprisoned a decade ago by Israel.
She told him she wanted her father home. And she asked the president, "Can you live without your daughter for half a minute?"
"No," the president replied.
What the 11-year-old didn't tell the president -- and what Clinton apparently didn't know -- was that her father, Mohammed, murdered an elderly Israeli scientist on his way home from delivering goods to the poor in the custom of the Jewish holiday of Purim.
In a speech before about 900 Palestinian leaders in Gaza, Clinton compared the pain of children like Zakout with that of children of victims of terror. The president said he had spoken to children from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that their stories touched him deeply.
Israelis were furious. Clinton's comparison was denounced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, the Israeli press and many others.
"I can say one thing," said Rami Schallinger, the son of the slain scientist. "President Clinton can in no way bring back my father to me."
Schallinger, a 41-year-old insurance broker, said he learned from a reporter that the girl with whom Clinton spoke was the daughter of his father's murderer. Mohammed Zakout is serving a sentence of life plus 25 years for the 1988 slaying of Dr. Kurt Schallinger, a professor of agricultural science.
The release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails is a potent issue for Palestinians and Israelis. The Middle East peace process has broken down because of it.
In the latest peace agreement, signed Oct. 23 in Washington, Israel was to release 750 Palestinian prisoners. But when Netanyahu refused to release prisoners like Zakout's father -- those "with blood on their hands" -- Palestinians took to the streets in protest. A wave of stone-throwing clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers erupted throughout the West Bank in the week before Clinton's visit.
The government of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat contends that many Palestinians languishing in Israeli jails are political prisoners. Young Nihad Zakout thinks of her father in that way.
"I was telling him [Clinton] that these people were defending their homeland. The Israelis keep saying we are terrorists," she -- said in an interview last night from her home in the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza. "If we kill one of them, they are killing thousands of us. These people are heroes. They have defended their homeland. I want my father."
During the trial of his father's murderer, Schallinger learned that Zakout said he wanted to kill because he didn't want to see Jews happy at Purim, a festive holiday in which children dress in costumes and recall the deliverance of Persian Jews from death.
"I can just tell you this: My father was an old man and he was religious. The murderer didn't come in front of him and fight him," said Schallinger. "He came from behind with two knives. [My father] couldn't even see him. I can hardly call [the killer] a political prisoner. This is just a brutal murder. And to compare the pain of the victim with the pain of the son, I don't have enough words."
Israelis, especially those whose families have died in terrorist attacks, can't abide the notion that Palestinians who kill are anything other than murderers.
"How can he dare compare children of murderers to children of victims of murder," said Sigal Magadish, whose brother was killed five years ago by two of his Palestinian workers. "My nephews' father is not going to return. He is buried in the ground."
Magadish met Clinton at a state dinner Sunday at the Jerusalem Hilton. She and another member of the Terror Victims Association.
"I told him that my brother was murdered twice, first five years ago in cold blood and lately in the signing of this agreement," said Magadish, a 20-year-old student who lives in Ramat Gan. "He left four little children."
Clinton, in his speech Monday, recalled his meeting with Zakout and three other children in Arafat's office.
He said that at the Israeli state dinner in Jerusalem he also met "little children whose fathers had been killed in conflict with Palestinians. Those children brought tears to my eyes."
The president made a plea for Israelis and Palestinians to secure their peace pact for the sake of their children.
"We must acknowledge that neither side has a monopoly on pain," Clinton said in his speech.
Yesterday, as the controversy over the president's remarks continued, questions were raised about whether the president had even really met Israeli children of victims of terror at the dinner. Israeli officials said they knew the president had met the two adult members of the Terror Victims Association and at least one child of an Israeli Druze imprisoned in Egypt on charges of spying for Israel.
An Ethiopian children's choir performed at the dinner, and some of them did meet the president, said a guest who attended the event.
Amy Weiss, a spokeswoman for the president, could not identify the children the president met that night except for the family of Azzam Azzam, the convicted Israeli spy. About 500 people attended the dinner, she said, and Clinton met guests in the crowd that evening. But she added: "The president is certain he met with the children of terror victims."
If Clinton was confused about who he met that night, "it's clearly understandable," said Moshe Fogel, the Israeli government spokesman who attended the dinner. "There could be confusion since he is running from one meeting to another. To focus on the mix-up, that is not the issue that was of concern to Israelis. The children of victims being compared to the perpetrators, that is a distortion," he said.
PTC Schallinger said his father taught many Arabs from the Gaza Strip and West Bank about irrigation and water resources.
"He always believed that people share the same problems and working on them is the way that will bring peace to the world," said the son.
Schallinger said he knows one cannot blame a child for a father's sins. He said if he spoke to Nihad Zakout, "I could explain to her that I feel sorry for her."
But he would tell her that those who commit such crimes should be punished for them. If her situation was as mine, he said, "I believe she would feel the same way as me."
Pub Date: 12/16/98