U.S. warns of Israel travel on eve of federation confab

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WASHINGTON — Undeterred by a State Department warning against traveling to Israel, hundreds continued to descend on Jerusalem this week for the largest annual gathering of North American Jewish leadership.

On Wednesday, the State Department issued an "Israel Travel Warning," as the Clinton administration continued to rattle the sabers of war against Iraq.

The advisory came five days before the scheduled opening of the General Assembly of the UJA Federations of North America. Some 2,000 delegates had arrived in Israel by Wednesday afternoon. Another 700 are scheduled to land before Monday.

"Private American citizens may want to consider departing the country," said the warning, which is milder than previous advisories. The State Department also authorized all non-emergency personnel and eligible family members of U.S. Embassy and consulate personnel to leave Israel.

The United States has "not ruled out the use of any options" against Iraq, the warning said, using the diplomatic code words for military force.

"Iraq's continued defiance of the will of the international community, therefore, is heightening the level of risk to American citizens in the Middle East," the warning said, referring to Iraq's refusal to cooperate with U.N. chemical and biological weapons inspectors.

During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq launched dozens of Scud missiles at Israel. Three Israelis died during the attacks.

Although the risk of chemical and biological warfare "is remote, it cannot be excluded," the State Department said.

President Clinton called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday to discuss the U.S.-Iraq crisis. Secretary of Defense William Cohen used a hotline phone twice this week to talk to Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.

In Jerusalem, Netanyahu told reporters Wednesday that he had also been briefed by Israeli security officials and that if it appeared Israel could be targeted as a result of an American military action, instructions would be given to the public.

Israeli officials said the possibility of an Iraqi attack against the Jewish state remains low, but the country nevertheless opened gas mask distribution centers.

As the news broke about the gas mask distribution, UJA officials pledged to discuss the matter and "respond with all due care and diligence," said Gail Hyman, vice president of marketing and public affairs for UJA Federations of North America.

"We are watching the situation minute by minute and we will take precautions as we need to," said Hyman. "Right now we are moving ahead as planned."

UJA officials had no immediate information on cancellations but said that they had received many calls inquiring about the warning.