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Bush Says He Does Not ‘regret’ Making Statement on Jerusalem

President Bush denied Tuesday that his recent statement on East Jerusalem may have been responsible for the virtual collapse of the Israeli government.

“I don’t regret it,” Bush said of his March 3 remark that there should be no “new settlements in the West Bank or East Jerusalem.”

“I think all the speculation and commentary of the last 10 days have blown the thing way out of proportion,” Bush said at a news conference Tuesday.

At the State Department, spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler was asked whether the administration was responsible for what she called a “political crisis” in Israel. “Absolutely not,” she replied.

But several Middle East experts and American Jewish leaders have said Bush’s statement exacerbated the bitter dispute in the Israeli Cabinet, where the Labor Party had demanded that the government accept Secretary of State James Baker’s proposal for Israeli-Palestinian talks.

NO COMMENT ON POLITICAL CRISIS

Likud would only accept the proposal on condition that Arabs living in East Jerusalem would not be allowed to participate in the negotiations.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir viewed participation by East Jerusalem Arabs as threatening the unity of Jerusalem. Bush’s statement on settlements seemed to enforce the view that Jerusalem’s status might be up for negotiation.

Bush refused any comment Tuesday on the deteriorating political situation in Israel. “Right now in Israel, there’s internal developments taking place in the political scene there, and I do not want in any way to mingle in the internal affairs of Israel,” he said.

“It’s so sensitive, it’s so emotional, and I just think any further speculation on this question would certainly not be useful,” he said.

Tutwiler also said she would not inject herself into Israel’s internal affairs, although “we obviously will be watching this crisis closely.”

She rejected suggestions that the administration did not believe that Shamir was pursuing the peace process he initiated last spring, when he proposed a plan that included elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“We have never assumed that he (Shamir) was not working hard, that he was not actively pursuing this,” Tutwiler said. If the Israelis “weren’t wrestling with this question, there would not be a crisis,” she added.

STONY SILENCE GREETS CHENEY

Tutwiler was asked about a charge made Sunday night by Thomas Dine, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, who said Bush’s statement on East Jerusalem was evidence of a “new American tilt” against Israel.

She responded that Bush was only stating longstanding U.S. policy.

That policy was restated by Defense Secretary Richard Cheney in a speech Tuesday to the United Jewish Appeal’s seventh National Young Leadership Conference here.

When Cheney told some 2,500 people attending the conference that Jerusalem should not be divided, he drew a standing ovation from the crowd. But when he added that the final status of Jerusalem should be decided through negotiations, there was stony silence.

The UJA young leaders unanimously adopted a resolution Monday night asserting that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and must never be divided again.

“As proud Americans and proud Jews, we call upon all Americans and our government to take all steps necessary to ensure the continued unity of Jerusalem as the capital of the sovereign State of Israel,” the resolution said.

LETTERS FROM JEWISH LEADERS

The National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, meanwhile, has sent a letter to Bush stressing that American Jews are “united in support of Jerusalem as the undivided eternal capital of the State of Israel.”

“The fundamental right of Jews to live in this city must be respected,” said the March 8 letter, which was signed by NJCRAC’s chairman, Arden Shenker, and released to the news media late Monday.

He stressed that Jews should be allowed to live in “any part of Jerusalem.”

Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, sent a letter of his own to Bush on Tuesday.

It urged the president to “articulate our government’s policy regarding Jerusalem clearly and consistently, so that there is no room for doubt, or fear that this administration considers East Jerusalem a part of the West Bank.”

“I believe I speak for the overwhelming majority of Reform Jews in the United States in voicing dismay and regret at some recent statements from the administration that have served to create confusion and anxiety, not only in Israel, but within the American Jewish community as well,” he wrote.

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