JERUSALEM -- President Clinton left the Middle East yesterday expressing optimism that the peace process was back on track, but Israel remains dissatisfied with Palestinian compliance and won't carry out a troop withdrawal set for Friday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he could not return more West Bank land to the Palestinians until they met all their obligations under the land-for-security deal signed Oct. 23.
As Clinton was proclaiming his peace-making mission a success, he found himself embroiled in a controversy over comparisons ++ he had made between Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorism and the families of Palestinian prisoners.
During his address to Palestinian leaders Monday, the president compared the pain of children of victims of terror to that of Palestinian children whose family members are languishing in Israeli jails.
"Those children brought tears to my eyes," said Clinton. "We have to find a way for both sets of children to get their lives back and to go forward."
"Rage in Israel," read the front-page headline in Yediot Ahronot, Israel's largest daily paper. "President Compares Victims of Terror to that of Palestinian Prisoners."
Netanyahu complained angrily to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. "You can't make a comparison between the murderers of innocent civilians and children who did so on purpose and the suffering of their victims. It is impossible," said Netanyahu.
Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon added: "There's no comparison between children for whom there is always hope to see their parents who had committed murder with children who have no chance in the world to see their parents who were murdered in the most cruel way and are buried."
In Israel, Clinton's comments overshadowed any progress the Americans felt they made during their three-day stay. The future of the Wye accord now falls to the wary peace partners. Clinton said Albright would return to the region to ensure its implementation.
Clinton met early yesterday with Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to close the gaps between the two sides.
"I do think that we are back on track. We're going to see this through, and I feel good about where we are now," he said later.
But national security adviser Samuel R. Berger conceded that the track was "bumpy" at best.
"We've moved Wye along in the last two days. We've got them back talking to each other, which is extremely important," Berger said yesterday. "For 18 months they were not talking to each other. As a result, the process totally broke down. Hopefully, now they'll start dealing with these issues less through public statements and more thorough dialogue."
During the three-way meeting at the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, the Israelis voiced concerns about the violent protests that engulfed the West Bank last week and subsided during Clinton's visit.
Netanyahu said the Palestinian renunciation of PLO charter clauses calling for the elimination of the Jewish state met one Israeli condition for the further withdrawal of Israeli troops from West Bank territory.
But he said the Palestinians have yet to collect illegal weapons as required under the Wye agreement. And they must wage a campaign against incitement, on the street and in the media, he said.
"If they fulfill these commitments we shall do what we have to do," Netanyahu said.
The Palestinians, Berger said, expressed concerns about Israel's refusal to release political prisoners and the expansion of Jewish settlements.
Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails ended a three-week hunger strike yesterday. Fayez Abu Shamaleh, director of the Palestinian Prisoners' Association, said they had called off the strike because Clinton made it clear in his speech that he would try to resolve the issue.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said Netanyahu is delaying the troop removal because of political considerations. Netanyahu has been battling right-wing members of his coalition over the Wye accords. The prime minister faces a no-confidence vote on Monday.
Berger said the sides would meet in committees to discuss outstanding issues. He emphasized that Israel's demand that Arafat stop saying he will unilaterally declare an independent Palestinian state has no basis in the Wye agreement.
"There is no obligation for Arafat to renounce his hopes and aspirations," Berger said.
After three days of peace-making in which Clinton often fielded as many questions about his impeachment problems as the Wye agreement, he finally had a chance to do something other than work.
Yesterday, he, his wife, Hillary, and daughter, Chelsea, traveled to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity, where legend has it Jesus Christ was born. The president and his family stooped to enter the church through its 4-foot-high doorway known as the Gate of Humility. They were joined by Arafat and his wife, Suha.
After a private visit, the Arafats and the Clintons attended a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Manger Square. A choir of Palestinian children sang Christmas hymns and the first family sang along. Then the Clintons put ornaments on the tree and lit it.
From there, they traveled to Masada, the mountain rising from the Judean desert that has come to symbolize Israelis' devotion to their land. It was here that a group of Jewish zealots committed suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. Netanyahu, accompanied by his wife, Sara, led the tour of the site.
The Clinton trip marked the first time that an American president has visited the seat of Arafat's Palestinian government.
During that historic visit, viewed as a boost for Palestinian sovereignty, Clinton acknowledged the suffering of the Palestinian people and their frustration at the hands of their former occupiers. But he also insisted that the Palestinian people renounce violence, invoking a saying of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: "The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind."
The president told the Palestinians that they must acknowledge the concerns and fears of Israelis if they want the Israelis to understand theirs.
Pub Date: 12/16/98