WASHINGTON — President Clinton on Wednesday passionately defended his administration's handling of the stalemated Mideast peace process, even as the bombing of a Jerusalem market underscored how little influence the U.S. has in stemming the violence there and bringing the parties back into peace talks.
"I believe the way I am doing this is the most effective way," Clinton told reporters hours after the terrorist attack killed two suicide bombers and 13 others.
The president said it would be wrong to "conclude for a moment that the White House has not been intimately and intensely and continuously involved in this peace process, particularly as it has gotten more difficult."
At the same time, Clinton announced that because of the bombing, he has postponed a trip to the region by envoy Dennis B. Ross, who had hoped to move the two sides back toward negotiations.
Under Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the Clinton administration has taken a decidedly low-key approach to the Middle East peace talks--with Albright cajoling the parties by telephone or through emissaries but refraining from the personal diplomacy of her predecessor, Warren Christopher, who made no fewer than 27 trips to the region in four years.
For most of Albright's six-month tenure, State Department officials have insisted that the United States may want peace more than the parties themselves, and suggested that Washington would hold back until Israel and the Palestinians indicated that they were ready to negotiate.
On Wednesday, a senior official said the administration's policy is more complex than that. He explained that, starting about the end of May, the administration recognized that it was counterproductive to push the parties too hard for high-level bargaining.
"The more profile we gave to bring them together, the more there was resistance," the official said.
The United States then changed tactics, brokering lower-level meetings between Israelis and Palestinians on relatively noncontroversial issues to build trust. That seemed to be working when Israel and the Palestinians this week announced a resumption of talks on opening an airport and a seaport in the Gaza Strip.
A White House official said it was progress in those talks that had persuaded Clinton to schedule the Ross trip.
The administration has been sharply criticized for its low-profile approach.
"There are times that you can argue that it's best to allow the locals to stew in their own juices. I don't think this is one of them," said Richard Haass, a Middle East policy analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Until the president speaks out and makes it clear where he stands, no secretary of State can be effective. Where one could fault [Albright] is in the lack of the pressure she has put on the president to get out in front."
But the White House official said the administration determined that "the parties' positions were so far apart that they needed to make some hard decisions about where they were going before we could involve ourselves publicly in a productive way."
The officials stressed that while Wednesday's tragedy will temporarily halt any progress, it will not necessarily hurt the long-term prognosis.
"We have had another traumatic day," said the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This is not the first time we have suffered a trauma. Since 1993, we have had lots of traumas, and somehow the process survives. The reality is we are at an extremely difficult moment. We have had them before. We have to find a way out of it."
He said legislation authorizing economic aid to the Palestinian Authority and permitting contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization will probably lapse, noting that Wednesday's crisis "creates an environment that makes it more difficult." The legislation is considered critical because it gives U.S. negotiators needed credibility in their dealings with the Palestinians.
In Hawaii on Wednesday, where she stopped en route home from a weeklong trip to Asia, Albright said she had spoken with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat by telephone from her plane.
She said Arafat pledged a 100% effort to tighten security but noted that he could not control events 100%.
As for U.S. policy in the region, Albright said, "As much as the United States would like to act, a lot of hard decisions have to be made by the players on the ground."
Times staff writer Robin Wright in Honolulu contributed to this report.