First lady's Israel itinerary criticized; Palestinian territory not in her trip plans


JERUSALEM -- First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has upset both Jews and Arabs with past remarks about the Middle East, is raising eyebrows once again by avoiding Palestinian territory when she visits Israel next week.

"No snub intended," said U.S. Embassy spokesman Larry Schwartz. But the omission has bolstered a view of Mrs. Clinton's first solo trip to Israel as a campaign stop in her expected run next year for the U.S. Senate from New York, which has a large number of Jewish voters.

Clinton is coming as the guest of Nava Barak, wife of the Israeli prime minister. She is due to speak Wednesday at a Tel Aviv University conference on children and violence and visit a center for troubled youth run by an organization that Barak chairs. The conference reflects heightened attention here to crime and domestic violence.

On Thursday, she will deliver the annual lecture sponsored by a research center named after slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. One of the event's organizers said Clinton has chosen to speak about the social impact of the peace process.

A spokesman for Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, said the authority hadn't been officially notified of the trip, but took no offense.

"She is welcome anytime," said the spokesman, Nabil Aburdeneh. "Whether she comes or she is busy [elsewhere], there is no problem." He noted that she had visited Gaza and Bethlehem, on the West Bank, during President Clinton's trip to the region in December.

"A lot of people come to Israel and don't come here, or come here and don't go to Israel," the spokesman said.

But Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, said, "Palestinians are not happy with this fact. It goes against the norm of diplomatic visits."

James Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab-American Institute, went further: "I think it's a mistake."

"She has a personal relationship with Mrs. Arafat, and she's still first lady," said Zogby, a Democrat. "Her not going sends the wrong message. If it is political, it's an insult."

Adding a Palestinian stop would not be a huge logistical problem, as Zogby noted: "It's a 20-minute drive. The most pro-Israel Jewish congressmen from New York now visit the West Bank and Arafat. Why she isn't is beyond me."

Marsha Berry, the first lady's spokeswoman, said yesterday that the schedule was not yet firmly fixed and that a visit to the territories might still be worked in.

She described the two speeches as the "anchors" of the visit. "We're trying to work out what's going on in between," Berry said in a phone call from California, where she was traveling with Clinton.

Clinton thrilled Palestinians and angered many supporters of Israel in May 1998, when she told a group of Israeli and Palestinian students that it would be "in the long-term interest of the Middle East for Palestine to be a state."

In the year and a half since then, the idea has won acceptance even among high-ranking Israelis. In July, the first lady angered Palestinians when she said that she looked forward to the day when Jerusalem would become Israel's uncontested capital. Palestinians want to establish their own capital in East Jerusalem.

Both statements by Clinton departed from official U.S. policy. Like most governments, the United States refuses to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, although a majority in Congress backs the Israeli position.

Clinton drew complaints from Jewish leaders this week for failing to include a visit to the Western Wall in her plans.

"She's visited the wall before," said Berry. "In this situation, she will try to do things that people want her to do that she hasn't done before."

The spokeswoman rejected the suggestion that the trip was politically motivated.

"This is an important part of the world that she feels a responsibility toward. [The trip] is something she would do as first lady no matter what the circumstances were."

Clinton had intended to visit Israel earlier this year. She put off the trip because of the Israeli election and the death of Jordan's King Hussein.

After leaving Israel, Clinton will travel to Jordan. She plans to visit Hussein's widow, Queen Noor, as well as King Abdullah and Queen Rania.

Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea, will also visit Petra, the ancient city carved out of rock.

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