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CRISIS IN THE MIDEAST

Clinton, Vowing Reprisal, Also Urges Mideast Calm

Response: President calls blast 'despicable' and says it is 'time to stop the bloodshed' in the region.

October 13, 2000|NORMAN KEMPSTER and MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Appalled by a wave of Middle East violence that added U.S. sailors to its lengthening list of victims, President Clinton vowed Thursday to redouble his efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, appealing to leaders on both sides for calm.

Clinton threatened retaliation if those behind an apparent attack against a U.S. warship in Yemen can be identified. But he called on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to ratchet down the latest cycle of violence that began when Israeli soldiers were lynched by a Palestinian mob.

"Now is the time to stop the bloodshed, to restore calm, to return to dialogue and, ultimately, to the negotiating table," Clinton said in a summary of his message to Barak and Arafat. "The alternative to the peace process is now no longer merely hypothetical. It is unfolding today before our very eyes."

With crises both potential and real unfolding across the region, Clinton initiated a flurry of phone calls to Mideast leaders. Before noon, with the reports of bloodshed still sketchy, he had conferred by telephone with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, as well as Barak and Arafat.

Repeatedly throughout the day, according to U.S. officials, Clinton called Arafat and Barak, "trying to restore the lines of communication" and break a cycle of violence that threatened to bury the stalled Mideast peace process.

"Today was obviously a bad day," said one weary Clinton administration official who witnessed a day of frantic efforts in the Oval Office.

Clinton canceled an evening of political fund-raising to monitor the situation. Vice President Al Gore cut short a day on the campaign trail to return to Washington for the crisis meetings. White House spokesman Jake Siewert brushed aside suggestions that Gore's hasty attendance was a political gimmick, saying the vice president "has been an integral player in the Mideast peace process throughout."

By day's end, Clinton had presided over a conference call with Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II in which Mubarak suggested moving up a planned Arab summit in Cairo scheduled for Oct. 23. White House officials said Clinton would attend if his presence could help.

As he has for most of his more than seven years in office, Clinton sought a rhetorical balance between Israel and the Palestinians, which administration officials say is necessary if Washington hopes to broker a peace settlement. But the president did not disguise his disgust with Thursday's lynching of the Israeli soldiers at a police station in Ramallah in the West Bank.

"I strongly condemn the murder of Israeli soldiers in Ramallah today," he said. "While I understand the anguish Palestinians feel over the losses they have suffered, there can be no possible justification for mob violence."

Clinton's attempt to walk the diplomatic tightrope was overwhelmed by a torrent of pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian sentiment from Capitol Hill. Although the administration was able to head off a vote in the House on a bipartisan resolution expressing "solidarity with the state and people of Israel at this time of crisis," individual members of the Senate and House issued statements making much the same point.

Clinton vowed to identify and punish the perpetrators of the apparent suicide bombing of the guided missile destroyer Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen.

"If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act," he said. "We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable. If their intention was to deter us from our mission of promoting peace and security in the Middle East, they will fail utterly."

Clinton ordered the Defense and State departments and the FBI to launch a full-scale investigation of the attack. The FBI dispatched a veteran team of Middle East investigators.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, demanded stern retaliation for the attack on the Cole.

"The American people will not be satisfied with a throwaway missile attack on a random target, such as the one that followed the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa," he said. "The perpetrators of this brutal terrorist attack must be found and prosecuted."

Helms joined other lawmakers of both parties in blaming Arafat for the violence between Israelis and Palestinians. He said the Palestinians "are not fit partners for peace."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said: "Mr. Arafat may be working for peace behind the scenes, but it is time to come out forcefully and bring law and order to the territory under his control."

In the House, Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the International Relations Committee, introduced a resolution declaring that Congress "condemns the Palestinian leadership for encouraging the violence and doing so little for so long to stop it."

The measure, which had bipartisan sponsorship, was expected to come to a vote Thursday afternoon. A Democratic aide said it was withdrawn after the White House complained that it could fan the violence.

The State Department urged Americans to avoid travel to Israel, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon because of the unrest.

*

Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.

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