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First Lady Sidesteps Controversy During Her Tour of the Middle East

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has wrapped up a two-day visit to Israel characterized by careful efforts to sidestep the land mines of Middle East politics.

With Clinton considering a run for a New York seat in the U.S. Senate, her trip was closely watched for any impact it may have on the state’s large Jewish population.

As Israel and the Palestinians enter their most difficult phase of negotiations, U.S. State Department officials were reportedly concerned that she not repeat her previous statements favoring the creation of a Palestinian state.

On Thursday, Clinton visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. She then traveled to the West Bank town of Ramallah, where she met with Suha Arafat, wife of the Palestinian Authority president, and presented a U.S. grant of some $4 million for the establishment of mother-child aid centers in the self-rule areas.

She later visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.

But despite Clinton’s efforts to achieve a careful balance in her comments, controversial remarks by Arafat set off angry protests in Israel.

Speaking to reporters after meeting with Clinton, Arafat accused Israel of polluting the West Bank’s water and land.

Israeli officials immediately rejected the claims and accused Arafat of incitement.

“These baseless accusations of Suha Arafat are the only thing poisoning the relations between the two peoples,” said Cabinet member Haim Ramon.

Clinton, who did not respond to Arafat’s statements, was asked during her stop in Ramallah whether she still supports the creation of a Palestinian state.

She did not respond directly, telling her audience instead, “You can count on the United States and the strong U.S.-Palestinian relationship as you move forward on the path to peace.”

Earlier, at a breakfast hosted by Reuma Weizman, wife of the Israeli president, and Nava Barak, wife of the prime minister, Clinton stressed the strong U.S.- Israeli relationship.

She said she was in Israel to “further deepen the already strong bonds between our two countries.”

“I am doing everything I can on behalf of my husband and our government and the United States to further the peace process,” she added.

Clinton, accompanied by her daughter, Chelsea, continued on to Yad Vashem, where she laid a wreath in memory the victims of the Holocaust.

Most of the stops on Clinton’s trip, her fifth to Israel, focused on youth and social issues.

She began her visit to Israel on Wednesday by going to a teen-counseling center in Kfar Saba. She later spoke at a conference on youth in Tel Aviv.

On Thursday, she visited the Sha’are Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem and the Rabin medical center in Tel Aviv.

Her visit later that day to the Western Wall reportedly took place after consultation with Jewish leaders.

Clinton and Barak stood before the wall for several minutes. She placed a note in the wall before leaving, as did her daughter.

Before departing for Jordan, the next stop on her Middle East tour, Clinton gave a lecture at the Rabin peace center in Tel Aviv.

In that speech, she reminisced about peace talks that took place at the White House, focusing on the late leaders of Israel and Jordan, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein.

Clinton related how Rabin had warned her she was “endangering” the peace process when she refused to let him or Hussein smoke in the White House.

“As they would come in and out of the White House, one or the other would turn and chide me that I was sending them out into the cold, I was denying them the comforts of their habits,” Clinton recalled.

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