The United States must stay involved in the Middle East peace process, even when it appears to be failing, former President Bill Clinton urged more than 6,000 listeners Monday evening.
Even though the United States may risk its prestige in an unsuccessful effort, "We will be judged by what we tried. It is better to try and fail than not to try at all," Clinton said.
The former president was the lead-off speaker in a University of Judaism lecture series and was enthusiastically greeted by an audience that filled every place in the 6,200-seat Universal Amphitheatre.
Looking back at his own strenuous efforts to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Clinton said, "I did my best, and perhaps when I failed, I made it worse."
On the eve of a visit to the Middle East, Clinton pledged that "We will never stand by and let Israel be destroyed.... Those who seek this objective cannot achieve it."
Clinton will visit Israel later this month to receive an honorary degree from Tel Aviv University. He will also give a speech on the Middle East peace process Jan. 20 in Tel Aviv and participate in the opening of the Clinton Center for American Studies at the university, which will teach U.S. history, culture and political science.
The former president, looking fit and relaxed, devoted most of his talk to the causes of international terrorism, which he termed the "dark side of globalization," and the disparities between rich and poor nations.
However, in a question-and-answer session with Dr. Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism, Clinton addressed topics of special Jewish interest.
Why did the Camp David meeting with Yasser Arafat and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in July 2000 fail? Wexler asked.
"I don't know," answered Clinton. "The Palestinians got 95 percent of what they wanted.... Perhaps Arafat didn't want to be the target of assassination.
"If Arafat and Barak had had one year to slug it out, perhaps they would have gotten somewhere," he said.
Clinton noted that he had been invited to the world racism conference in Durban, South Africa, last fall, but decided against going because he feared it would turn into an anti-Israel sideshow.
But he argued that anti-Semitism was not a primary focus of the conference.
Most developing nations believe that the Palestinians "are getting the shaft" and used the conference to show their displeasure with the United States and Israel, he said.
What happened at Durban, he added, was a display "more of ignorance than anti-Semitism, and more of sympathy with the Palestinians than hatred of Jews."
Asked to explain the overwhelming electoral support he had enjoyed among African Americans and Jews, Clinton said that both communities "have a finely tuned sensibility of who is for them and who is against them."
The assertion was echoed by Peter Lowy, president of the UJ Board of Trustees, who introduced Clinton as a personal friend. "No American president has worked harder for peace," Lowy said.
The next speaker will be former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, to be followed by political strategist James Carville. The series ends with Barak.
Gady Levy, the UJ's dean of continuing education, opened the evening by recounting how each of the four speakers offered remarkable life stories. "This," he said, leaving his prepared speech, "is very exciting."