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Hillary Rodham Clinton Steps into Mideast Diplomatic Quagmire

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When Hillary Rodham Clinton called for Palestinian statehood in a satellite hookup with a Middle East youth summit last week, she entered a debate that had begun days earlier.

Long before the first lady set off diplomatic fireworks, the 75 teen-age delegates in Switzerland had grappled with the explosive issue.

Incensed that their conference T-shirts listed their country of origin as “PNA” for Palestinian National Authority when the other delegates got shirts that read Israel, Jordan, Egypt or the United States, the Palestinian representatives covered PNA with tape and wrote “Palestine.”

In a negotiated settlement, all the delegates covered their country’s name with their name tags, leaving only a flag showing.

Then the first lady came on satellite television to talk to the delegates.

As the Palestinian children asking questions gave their names and “Palestine” as their country of origin, WorldNet beamed back a caption with their name and “Palestine” for Clinton to see.

In response to a question, the first lady said, “I think it will be in the long-term interests of the Middle East for Palestine to be a state.”

The comment, including at least seven other references to statehood for the Palestinians and the word “Palestine” set off a fury in Israel and among many American Jewish groups.

The first lady’s staff immediately 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.

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

The day after the first lady’s comments, White House spokesman Mike McCurry continued to distance the Clinton administration from the statement.

“That view expressed personally by the first lady is not the view of the president,” said McCurry.

“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,” he said.

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.”

But Netanyahu and many Jewish groups say that Clinton himself needs to address the comment, which is being interpreted in many European and Arab capitals as a signal to the Palestinians.

As Netanyahu continues to seek Clinton’s promise that he would not recognize a threatened unilateral declaration by Arafat of Palestinian statehood if the final status talks do not conclude by their May 1999 deadline, the first lady’s statement hit Israel hard.

A letter from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to Clinton accepted the administration’s disavowal of the first lady’s statement. But in a separate statement, the umbrella group said the president “must make clear to Chairman Arafat that any unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state in violation of the Oslo accords would be rejected by the U.S. and not recognized.”

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright addressed the issue at a news conference Tuesday.

Without mentioning the first lady by name, Albright said any unilateral statements on issues reserved for the final-status peace talks, including the status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, are “courting disaster.”

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