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Ross Heads Back to Mideast As First Lady Calls for ‘palestine’

The slim chances for a major Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough this weekend remain alive as President Clinton dispatched his top Middle East negotiator back to Israel for another round of talks.

Dennis Ross, in talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will attempt to seal a deal on a phased Israeli withdrawal from 13 percent of the West Bank in exchange for the implementation of specific Palestinian security commitments.

If successful, Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat would come to the White House on Monday for a three-way meeting with President Clinton to launch final-status talks.

But as Ross prepared for his mission, the Clinton administration was forced to deal with the fallout from a statement of support for a Palestinian state by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The first lady told a gathering of Israeli and Arab teen-agers via a satellite link-up, “I think it will be in the long-term interests of the Middle East for Palestine to be a state.”

The comment set off a fury in Israel and among many American Jewish groups.

Immediately Hillary Clinton’s staff moved to downplay the statement. Her words stand in direct contradiction to U.S. policy, which for decades opposed the creation of a Palestinian state.

Only after the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians earlier this decade did the United States say that statehood is a matter for negotiations between the parties.

the Clinton administration from the statement. “That view expressed personally by the first lady is not the view of the president,” McCurry told reporters.

“This was not part of any kind of calculated strategy, and I think it speaks for itself when an immediate clarification is issued by her staff that this is something that she did not say in the context of any formal administration policy-making role.”

When pressed on the issue, McCurry said to laughter from the White House press corps, “I expect that she will always continue to express her views, but I doubt that she’ll be venturing into the Middle East peace process anytime soon.”

The comment could not have come at a worse time for the U.S. administration’s peace process team, which is trying, so far in vain, to convince Netanyahu to back a West Bank redeployment of 13 percent that he says would endanger Israel’s security.

The U.S. insistence that the meeting in Washington would take place only if he agrees to the U.S. proposals has drawn the ire of many in the Jewish community.

Albright sought to calm the situation in a conference call late Wednesday with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

In the call, which lasted more than an hour, Albright defended the administration’s policy and said that there was no “ultimatum” issued to Netanyahu and that the United States did not issue any dictates as the Israeli premier has charged.

Apparently stung by the many hostile questions from the group, Albright said the United States would do nothing to endanger Israel’s security and that the U.S.-Israel relations was “indissoluble.”

Albright spoke from London, where she met earlier this week with both Netanyahu and Arafat. It was at the conclusion of those talks that the invitation to Washington was issued.

After initially hinting that he would come to Washington, Netanyahu on Thursday said it is “unlikely” he will be there.

Still, the prime minister, who requested that Ross come back to the region, held out some hope that the U.S. envoy’s mission would succeed.

When asked if he would press his Cabinet to accept a 13 percent redeployment, Netanyahu said, “You can only persuade when you are convinced.”

When I am convinced, Netanyahu said, “I have no doubt that I will convince all the coalition partners, or at least most of them, and they will support us.”

Clinton himself went out of his way on Thursday to address the growing tensions over the U.S. call on Israel for further withdrawals from the West Bank.

“What we are trying to do now is simply to regain the momentum that has been lost in the past few months, not by imposing our ideas on anyone,” Clinton said Thursday.

“Only the parties can make decisions that will affect the lives they have to live, their security and their future,” said the president, who is coming under increased pressure from Capitol Hill to take the heat off of Israel.

Clinton stressed that he is trying to find “common ground to achieve what Prime Minister Netanyahu asked us to pursue a year ago: the start of accelerated permanent-status negotiations.”

Clinton was scheduled to address a major Arab American group Thursday night. An administration official said that the president’s speech, scheduled long before this week’s developments, would focus primarily on domestic issues of concern to the group.

This is the first time a sitting president is addressing an Arab American organization, according to James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, the sponsor of the conference Clinton was to address.

Many Jewish groups have expressed concern over the shift in the United States’ role from mediator to active participant in the negotiations. The Conference of Presidents, an umbrella organization, decided to wait until after Netanyahu’s Cabinet meeting on Sunday to comment publicly.

But Republicans on Capitol Hill lambasted Clinton this week.

In a letter to Clinton, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) wrote, “America’s strong-arm tactics would send a clear signal to the supporters of terrorism that their murderous actions are an effective tool in forcing concessions from Israel.” Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Gingrich said, “The Clinton administration says, `Happy birthday, let us blackmail you on behalf of Arafat.'”

But for now the focus is not on Capitol Hill, but back in Jerusalem. Regardless of the outcome of the Ross mission, Netanyahu still plans to come to the United States at the end of next week to speak to the annual gatherings of the American Jewish Committee and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Netanyahu is also scheduled to lead the annual Israel Day parade in New York, slated for May 17.

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