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Clinton Visit to Jerusalem Block by Turf Dispute

By Barton Gellman
The Washington Post

All President Clinton wanted, or so the official line went, was to indulge his interest in "history and archaeology." Late Thursday night, a day's diplomacy done, the First Tourist would stroll Jerusalem's walled Old City and visit the holy sites of three religions.

Never mind the security nightmare of a president on foot in those dark stone alleys. Jerusalem's political classes had another agenda, the same agenda they always have: Whose side was this outsider on? Whose interests could he be made to serve? Who would seize the irresistible prize of squiring the leader of the Free World around the Holy City?

In a land of ancient claims, where no symbol or square inch of turf goes uncontested, those questions sent Israelis and Palestinians to the ramparts. By mid-afternoon, with the battle still raging, Clinton called the whole thing off. Later, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, accompanied by the mayor of Jerusalem, prayed at the Western Wall but visited none of the other religious sites.

No president of the United States, while in office, has toured the Old City, which lies in Arab east Jerusalem, captured by Israel from Jordan in 1967. Israel, which dates its claim to biblical times, annexed east Jerusalem and declared the undivided city its eternal capital. Palestinians claim Jerusalem as the capital of their future sovereign state.

This was, perhaps, an especially bad week for Clinton to put the question in play. On Wednesday, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat had told 4,500 students in Gaza that anyone who does not accept Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine "can go drink seawater." Arafat and Jordan's King Hussein, meanwhile, have appointed rival muftis as chief guardian of Jerusalem's Islamic sites.

Clinton's protocol team, according to Israeli and Palestinian accounts, at first attempted to arrange for him to visit the Western Wall, the Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre without official escort.

Nothing doing, said Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, a member of the conservative Likud bloc. "The president can only go through east Jerusalem with the mayor's accompaniment," said his spokeswoman, Alisa Kristt.

Olmert, in an interview, said it would raise "very serious problems" for Clinton to suggest it was inappropriate for "the elected mayor" to accompany him in any part of the city.

Faisal Husseini, the minister with responsibility for Jerusalem in Arafat's self-rule authority, replied that if Clinton showed up with Olmert at the Al Aqsa Mosque or the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem's central Muslim sites, the gates would be barred.

"The only thing that Olmert has to do with the mosques is the fact that his armed forces are occupying east Jerusalem," said Marwan Kanafani, Arafat's chief spokesman. For Clinton to bring an Israeli official, he said, would be "a grave mistake."

The Israeli-Palestinian battle, though unrelenting, was defensive at its core. Both sides hoped to host the president, but each seemed more concerned that the other side should not.

Although they hoped to satisfy all concerned, American officials were hardly unaware of the sensitivities raised by Clinton's visit.

"When I took up my job," State Department spokesman Michael McCurry said, "the first piece of advice I got was that if you never uttered the word "Jerusalem' at a State Department briefing you'd be ahead of the game. What I usually say is that our position is so well known it doesn't need to be explained at this point, and then I decline every opportunity to refresh people's memories."

In fact, the U.S. position under Clinton is somewhat murky. U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which American policy has long declared the basis for Middle East peace, speaks of Israeli withdrawal from "territories occupied in the recent conflict." But the Clinton administration has gone to some lengths to avoid saying whether it regards east Jerusalem under that rubric.

In March 1992, while running in New York's Democratic presidential primary, Clinton told Jewish leaders: "I recognize Jerusalem as an undivided city, the eternal capital of Israel, and I believe in the principle of moving our embassy to Jerusalem" from Tel Aviv. But he cautioned that he did not think "we should do anything to interfere with the peace process."