News Analysis: What motivated Hillarys call for Palestinian state

WASHINGTON — Did Hillary Rodham Clinton send a message of support for a Palestinian state on purpose?

Speaking during a satellite hookup with teenagers in Switzerland last week, she said "Palestine" or "state" at least seven times.

The White House contends she did not mean to signal a shift in U.S. policy when, in response to a question, the First Lady said, "I think it will be in the long-term interests of the Middle East for Palestine to be a state."

But many Israeli officials and Jewish groups remain unconvinced.

So the statement has set off a fury in Israel and among many American Jews who saw the comment as another way to pressure Israel to make concessions in the peace talks.

Whatever the case — intentional statement or accidental slip of the tongue — there was no indication whether her comment was discussed or had any effect on this week's Mideast peace discussions between Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Clinton's statement, if followed through by her husband's administration, would represent a major shift in U.S. policy, which for decades opposed the creation of a Palestinian state.

Only after Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords earlier this decade did the United States say that statehood is a matter for negotiations between the parties.

The question is whether that shift was intentional — even with the White House insisting that she was not speaking for the United States.

New York Times columnist William Safire expressed the opinion of many in the Jewish community when he wrote Monday that the White House denial of Clinton's statements "was not merely implausible; it was laughable."

Especially troubling, many Jewish and Israeli officials said, is the First Lady's own reputation as a thoughtful and deliberate person.

In the fallout from the statement, the organized Jewish community has asked President Clinton to respond personally.

For their part, meanwhile, Palestinians and Arab leaders adopted the statement as a clear American signal.

"We are very grateful to the First Lady regarding the Palestinian state," Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat said in Brussels this week. "This is a very important and clear signal."

Clinton's comments hit Israel hard because of the current state of peace negotiations — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seeking President Clinton's promise that he would not recognize a threatened unilateral declaration by Arafat of Palestinian statehood if the final-status talks do not conclude by their May 1999 deadline.

Despite skepticism from the public and many political pundits, White House spokesman Mike McCurry continued to distance the administration from her statement the day after Hillary Clinton's comments.

"That view expressed personally by the First Lady is not the view of the president," said McCurry.

"This was not part of any kind of calculated strategy, and I think it speaks for itself when an immediate clarification is issued by her staff that this is something that she did not say in the context of any formal administration policy-making role."

When pressed on the issue, McCurry said to laughter from the White House press corps, "I expect that she will always continue to express her views, but I doubt that she'll be venturing into the Middle East peace process anytime soon."

A letter from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to President Clinton accepted the administration's disavowal of Hillary Clinton's statement. But in a separate statement, the umbrella group said the president "must make clear to Chairman Arafat that any unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state in violation of the Oslo accords would be rejected by the U.S. and not recognized."

For Israel and some Jewish groups, Albright's comments on the issue at this week's news conference did not go far enough.

Without mentioning the First Lady by name, Albright said that any unilateral statements on issues reserved for the final-status peace talks, including the status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, are "courting disaster."

The organizers of the Seeds for Peace conference, at which Hillary Clinton spoke via satellite link, never thought she would cause an international diplomatic brouhaha.

Long before her remarks, the 75 teens at the conference in Switzerland had grappled with the explosive issue of statehood themselves.

Incensed that their conference T-shirts listed their country of origin as "PNA" for Palestinian National Authority when the other delegates got shirts that read Israel, Jordan, Egypt or the United States, the Palestinian representatives covered PNA with tape and wrote "Palestine."

In a negotiated settlement, all the delegates covered their country's name with their name tags, leaving only a flag showing, according to source involved in the program.

Then Hillary Clinton came on satellite television to talk to the delegates.

As the Palestinian children asking questions gave their names and "Palestine" as their country of origin, WorldNet beamed back a caption with their name and "Palestine" for her to see.

It was in response to a question that she delivered her controversial remarks.