Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz represented President Bush at the rally Monday among a line of speakers who expressed U.S. solidarity with Israel and condemned Palestinian suicide bombers as the greatest obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Wolfowitz, the Pentagon's second-ranked official was forced to stop talking several times, shouted down by boos and chants of "no more Arafat," when he noted that Israelis were not the only victims of violence. Yasser Arafat heads the Palestinian Authority and, denounced as a terrorist by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is "isolated" in his headquarters by Israeli troops sent by Sharon to crush Palestinian terror operations.
"Palestinians are suffering and dying as well," Wolfowitz told a crowd that extended from Capitol Hill down the National Mall to the Reflecting Pool. "It is critical that we recognize and acknowledge that fact." Wolfowitz also was interrupted by shouts of protest when he said that most Palestinians want peace, and "hard decisions must be made by both sides to achieve a lasting peace."
Debra Wasserman of the Israel Policy Forum, a group of Jewish leaders supportive of the administration's efforts to mediate the Mideast conflict, said in a statement that Wolfowitz eloquently articulated U.S.-Israel friendship, and "he deserves gratitude and credit from American Jews, not criticism and jeers."
Demonstrators came by charter plane from New York, Miami and Los Angeles, and by overnight bus from as far away as Wisconsin for what organizers said was the largest pro-Israel rally ever held in the United States. U.S. Capitol Police said reported no disturbances or arrests but said 138 people were treated for heat exhaustion as temperatures rose into the 80s.
Tom Schottenstein of Columbus, Ohio, said he left home at 11 p.m. Sunday with a group of 300. "We wanted to show our support" for Israel, he said. "It's very frustrating not to be able to do anything."
The speakers, appearing on the steps of the Capitol before a bank of U.S. and Israeli flags, included New York Gov. George Pataki, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel and the parents of several terror victims. Israel's Housing Minister Natan Sharansky and Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior addressed the rally. So did former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said Americans have come to realize that "Yasser Arafat is nothing more than Osama bin Laden with good P.R."
Janet Parshall, representing Christian broadcasters, also got a big cheer when she referred to the Palestinian leader as a terrorist and said to Israel: "We stand with you now and forever."
House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, one of several dozen lawmakers at the rally, said Israel had seen 450 of its citizens killed in violence over the past 18 months, equivalent to the United States losing more than 21,000 people. "Yet the Israeli people remain strong. And they remain determined to increase their security and pursue a lasting peace in the region."
The rally was sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the United Jewish Communities.