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CRISIS IN THE MIDDLE EAST

At U.N., Diplomats Assail Opening of Tunnel

September 28, 1996|CRAIG TURNER and NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

UNITED NATIONS — The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found itself isolated from the international community Friday as world leaders fixed most of the blame on Israel for the resumption of violence in the Middle East.

At a Security Council special meeting, criticism of Israel came from longtime friends such as Britain, Germany and Canada, as well as from Russia, China, Egypt, France and others.

More than 40 countries discussed the fatal Mideast tumult, virtually all urging Netanyahu to close an archeological tunnel along a Muslim holy site in Jerusalem--an excavation that prompted bloodshed that has claimed dozens of Israeli and Palestinian lives--and to resume face-to-face talks with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

The comments underlined concern about the Mideast peace process that has been building around the globe since the May election of the right-wing Netanyahu.

The criticism of Israel was heightened, in diplomatic terms, because it was delivered Friday by the foreign ministers of several countries--here this week for the opening of the 51st annual U.N. General Assembly--rather than by lower-ranking envoys to the United Nations.

America's top diplomat, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, remained 10 blocks away from the United Nations on Friday at a hotel where he continued his efforts to help restart the peace process by telephoning Netanyahu, Arafat, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and others. Christopher was also briefing President Clinton.

At the Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright sought to dampen the anti-Israel tone and to head off any effort to adopt a council resolution condemning Israel.

"Let us turn our attention not toward condemnation but toward encouraging the parties to restore the peace process and return to effort to achieve concrete progress," she told the council.

But the Netanyahu government repeatedly was accused of derailing the peace process.

Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov, for example, said the current crisis was a "direct result of reckless activity."

French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette said the peace process was "in danger of seeing its death knell."

Paolo Fulci, Italy's U.N. ambassador, said resumption of peace talks "is the primary, though not the exclusive, responsibility of the Israeli government."

British Foreign Minister Malcolm Rifkind endorsed a proposal by Jordan's King Hussein to close the tunnel while a multinational commission studies its fate.

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Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, the second speaker at the council meeting, anticipated the criticism, blasting what he termed an "orchestrated attempt to place blame on Israel and to portray her as the sole responsible party for the bitter harvest of blood."

"I come to refute in their entirety the distortions of fact which are being spread here regarding the dramatic events of the last days and which have cast such a dark cloud over the entire peace process," he said.

Although officials have made it clear that the United States has urged Israel to seal the controversial tunnel, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns, in New York with Christopher, declined to confirm that such advice had been given. But he did say that the Jordanian proposal "is certainly worth thinking about."

Late Friday, Burns said the administration was close to arranging a meeting of Arafat and Netanyahu this weekend.

On a Texas campaign trip with Clinton, White House press secretary Mike McCurry said the president was being kept up to date on Christopher's activities.

He added that there was no plan for Clinton to get involved: "In the Middle East peace process, involvement of the president is almost always for a very specific purpose. So far, the president is satisfied that we are advancing everything we can advance through the diplomatic channels that we have open."

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Times staff writer Jonathan Peterson in Houston contributed to this report.

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