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Mideast Peace Envoy Ross to Relaunch Mideast Talks

By Norman Kempster
Los Angeles Times

Struggling to prevent an offhand remark by his wife from scuttling plans for Israeli-Palestinian summit talks next week, President Clinton sent peace envoy Dennis Ross back to the Middle East on Thursday and turned to a less familiar side of U.S. ethnic politics with an address to the Arab-American Institute.

Ross left for Jerusalem to try to persuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept U.S. terms for a meeting Monday with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in Washington to launch negotiations for a final Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty.

Playing hard to get, Netanyahu said in a televised interview, "I don't know if we'll get to Washington by Monday because there are a lot of issues that are left open."

The administration had hoped to use the prospect of a summit to pressure Israel into accepting a U.S. plan to settle a territorial dispute with the Palestinians.

But Washington seemed to lose the psychological high ground when first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton called for creation of a Palestinian state - an issue that U.S. presidents have ducked for decades.

"I think that it will be in the long-term interests of the Middle East for Palestine to be a state, and for it to be a state that is responsible for its citizens' well-being, a state that has responsibility for providing education and health care and economic opportunity to its citizens, a state that has to accept the responsibility for governing," she said in a closed-circuit television hookup from Washington with 75 Israeli and Arab teenagers attending a meeting in Switzerland.

Although the first lady is a private citizen with no formal governmental responsibility, her comments on a U.S. Information Agency-sponsored program were taken as evidence of U.S. bias by Israel and its supporters in the United States. Even before the first lady's remarks, Israel's friends in Congress had demanded that the administration stop pressuring Israel to make concessions in the peace process.

"It is impossible to believe that in such a critical week when the president is trying to get Bibi [Netanyahu] to come to Washington and accept the [U.S. proposal], that the first lady would address such a subject without checking with White House experts," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "It's not an address to Rotarians that you can wing This will harden the Palestinians. To them it seems like the president is on board for a Palestinian state."

Hier added that the comments also will strengthen the determination of Netanyahu's right-wing allies to keep Israel from participating in the proposed talks.

The first lady's remarks angered White House and State Department Middle East specialists, although there was no public criticism.

"She's free to be as outspoken as she wishes to be," said Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary. Responding to a barrage of questions at his daily briefing, McCurry sought to distance the president from his wife's comments, asserting that the "view expressed personally by the first lady is not the view of the president."

In State Department jargon, Palestinian statehood is a "final status" issue, one factor that will go into a final peace treaty between the antagonists. Although some Israelis concede privately that creation of a Palestinian state is inevitable, they expect to trade statehood for some attractive concessions by the Arabs.

Paradoxically, the proposed Washington summit is intended to launch final talks after four years of unproductive Israeli-Palestinian haggling on what were supposed to be far less difficult interim issues. Netanyahu's government has called for accelerated negotiations to settle the conflict and to supersede the interim agreement signed by the previous Labor Party-led Israeli government.

Although Clinton has come under attack for pressuring Israel, the president is generally regarded as a staunch friend of the Jewish state, and American Jews make up an important part of his constituency. His relations with the Arab-American community are much less close.

That was one reason Thursday night's speech was touted by the Arab-American Institute as the first ever by any U.S. president to an Arab-American national conference. "This address marks a threshold in Arab-American political empowerment," said James J. Zogby, the institute's president. "President Clinton is reaching out to our community as no other president has."