Jerusalem (CNS) In 1996, a moist-eyed President Bill Clinton vowed at the Jerusalem graveside of a slain Israeli-American soldier that he would not pressure Israel to pursue the peace process with the Palestinians until the man responsible for the murder was brought to justice.
Only four other people were there to hear the promise. One was Esther Wachsman, the mother of 19-year-old Nachson, whose 1994 kidnapping and murder at the hand of Islamist Palestinian gunmen stunned the nation.
"He said it with tears in his eyes, and his hands on the stones," Mrs. Wachsman told CNSNews.com Wednesday.
"And three years later, Mohammed Deif is walking around Gaza, free."
Deif, Israel's most wanted man, is the Hamas militant accused of masterminding the Wachsman killing.
Mrs. Wachsman jumped ahead to another significant encounter, this time between her husband, Yehuda, a "very senior" Palestinian Authority police officer, and a translator, in a Gaza office.
The officer had told her husband that he knew where Deif was at that moment, and could arrest him within minutes but that he was under instructions from PA Chairman Yasser Arafat not to do so.
Mrs. Wachsman took the matter up at the White House with then national security advisor Anthony Lake. He later reported to her that the officer concerned denied having made the remarks. The translator, she discovered, had been thrown into prison.
And finally Mrs. Wachsman recalled a third incident, just six months ago, when Clinton addressed the Palestinian National Council at a gathering in Gaza.
That was when the visiting president had drawn a parallel between two groups of children he had met the Israeli children of victims of terrorism, and Palestinian children whose fathers were in Israeli prisons.
"No side has a monopoly of pain, or virtue," Clinton said.
The comments sent a shockwave through Israel. Mrs. Wachsman said U.S. Ambassador Ned Walker had visited her personally to "clarify and apologize."
"I hold no animosity towards President Clinton," she said, "but I'll never see my son again. I'm sure they [children of Palestinians in prison for terror attacks] will see their fathers."
The case of Deif, and other Palestinians suspected of attacks in which Americans have been killed, raised new friction this week between the outgoing Netanyahu government and the Clinton administration.
The row began when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's communications spokesman, David Bar-Ilan, said the U.S. was dragging its feet in investigating the killings.
This "must be politically motivated," he charged. "It is impossible to explain such indifference to the murder of Americans in any other way."
Specifically, Bar-Ilan said Washington had failed to demand that the PA extradite the killers of Naschson Wachsman, and those responsible for the death of David Boim, a 16-year-old American pupil shot dead in 1996.
In reaction, Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk who as ambassador to Israel was one of the other men present at Wachsman's graveside when Clinton made his vow complained formally to Israeli ambassador to Washington, Zalman Shoval.
Israeli media said Indyk asserted that the administration was "dealing with the matter in the most determined fashion."
But Bar-Ilan remains unrepentant: "The facts speak for themselves," he said.
The PA sentenced Imjad Muhammad Hinawi to 10 years' imprisonment for murdering Boim in a drive-by shooting near the Jewish settlement of Beit El in May 1996.
Earlier this year Netanyahu's office said the PA had released him in February 1997, on the occasion of a major Muslim holiday.
Officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Justice Department have visited the region three times in recent months to investigate attacks in which Americans were killed.
In the Boim case, the U.S. investigators raised doubts about the likelihood of securing a conviction in an American court, saying the confession Hinawi gave PA authorities was insufficient.
PA courts routinely try and convict security prisoners in swift proceedings, sometimes finalizing a trial within 15 minutes. In Hinawi's case, no "external evidence" was presented.
An American official told CNSNews.com privately the concerns with bringing criminals to justice in the U.S. related to the fact that suspects in Palestinian or Israeli custody had sometimes made confessions after allegedly being tortured.
Hamas militant Deif is the other suspect Israel wants bought to trial. Besides the Wachsman kidnapping and killing, he has also been linked to two February 1996 bus bombings in Jerusalem, which took 60 lives, including those of three Americans New York seminary students Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, and Ira Weinstein.
He is also accused of orchestrating a 1993 drive-by shooting in which a 19-year-old American, Isaac Weinstock, was killed.
Israel has formally asked the PA to turn Deif over to face charges, but although he is known to be at large in Gaza, PA police claim to be unable to track him down. They did detain two of his alleged accomplices last month.
The head of Israel's General Security Service, Ami Ayalon, told the cabinet two weeks ago that the PA has yet to honor a single Israeli request to extradite terror suspects. He said many of the 45 terror suspects whose handover Israel has applied for serve in PA security forces, or are in PA custody.
In signing the Oslo Accords, the PA agreed to meet all requests to turn over wanted terrorists to Israel for prosecution.
After visiting Israel last Spring, Senator Connie Mack (R-FL) told the Senate he had met the parents of some of Deif's alleged victims, including the Wachsmans.
"How would I feel in their place? I couldn't keep the thought from my mind, as I listened. If I had lost a child and knew that the murderer or accomplices were on the loose, how would I feel? And if I knew the killer remained free to kill other people's children, how would I feel?"
"How can one find peace with people who do not condemn terrorism?" Mack asked. "How is it possible to engage in peace negotiations with people who keep terrorists on the loose to wreak havoc and evil against you and praise them for heroism?"
Since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, Hamas and a smaller Islamist group, Islamic Jihad have been responsible for the violent deaths of more than 280 Israelis, including 160 killed in 19 suicide bombings.