WASHINGTON -- The United States prepared last night to join in a United Nations Security Council condemnation of Israeli authorities' "excessive force" in the deaths of 19 Palestinians following a rock-throwing barrage against Jews Monday from Jerusalem's Temple Mount.
Together with other permanent council members, the United States also endorsed having the U.N. secretary-general dispatch a mission to the region to investigate Monday's clash.
The decision to condemn Israel, a close ally, came as the Bush administration sought to keep the Arab anger that erupted after the shootings from weakening the international coalition arrayed against Iraq, which has been trying to turn the Persian Gulf crisis into an Arab-Israeli dispute.
A quick check by Bush administration officials turned up two occasions -- both early in this decade -- when the United States joined a U.N. resolution condemning Israel. The first followed the Israeli raid that destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor; the second followed Israel's invasion of Lebanon.
The proposed resolution, approved by the five permanent council members late yesterday afternoon and thus veto-proof, had not yet gone before the full Security Council and was subject to change, officials said.
[A snag developed when the Palestine Liberation Organization rejected the U.S. draft as too weak and pressed a stronger one, the Associated Press reported. The Security Council had been expected to convene last night to consider the two drafts, but by late in the day the council president had sent most council members home except for those holding consultations.]
The Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to comment before the Security Council acted. But earlier, Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had suggested that Israel would block a proposed U.N. fact-finding mission. He urged Washington to veto an inquiry into the violence at the Temple Mount, saying that supporting it would amount to backing Iraq's Saddam Hussein and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.
President Bush signaled a tough U.S. stance against Israel yesterday morning when, in somewhat stronger language than that used by Secretary of State James A. Baker III Monday, he said during a news conference that Israeli security forces "need to act with greater restraint," particularly in their use of deadly force.
"It is particularly saddening, given the sanctity of the holy places and observances there, that violence shattered all of this," Mr. Bush said.
"Israeli security forces need to be better prepared for such situations, need to act with greater restraint, particularly when it comes to the use of deadly force. And at this point, what is needed most of all is calm on all sides."
Mr. Bush added, "Let me just state that we want to see the long-standing policy of maintaining open access to the holy places preserved, tempered only by mutual respect for people of other faiths. And so I am very, very saddened by this needless loss of life, and I would call on all for restraint. The action will shift to the United Nations now."
The president said he did not think Iraq would succeed in using Monday's violence to crack the anti-Iraq coalition that has linked the United States, West Europe, the Soviet Union and Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria.
"Saddam Hussein is trying to, from the very beginning, justify the illegal invasion of Kuwait by trying to tie it in to the Palestine question," Mr. Bush said. "And that is not working. The Arab world is united -- almost united -- against him. And I don't think if he tries now to use this unfortunate incident to link the two questions, I don't think that will be successful. And certainly, I will be doing what I can to see that it is not successful."
Underscoring the need to maintain international resolve against Iraq, Mr. Bush met later in the day with Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal.
The killings on the Temple Mount, the Saudi said afterward, reinforced the need to end the gulf crisis so that attention could focus on the Palestinian problem.
Israel has cooperated with the United States throughout the gulf crisis by maintaining a low profile that enabled the Bush administration to forge strategic links with Arab states. At the same time, Israeli officials have pressed what they see as the need to eliminate Iraq's permanent threat to the region and have said they would do what was necessary to protect Israel's security.
But strains in the U.S.-Israeli relationship have been apparent since the start of the Bush administration, with Washington adopting a tougher stand against Israel's settlements and crackdowns in the occupied territories.
Earlier this year, President Bush caused a firestorm in Israel -- which many say triggered the fall of its previous, coalition government -- when he criticized Israeli settlement in mostly Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel took over after the 1967 war.
Last week, Mr. Baker wrung assurances from Israel that it would not offer subsidies encouraging Soviet Jews to settle beyond the pre-1967 borders, including East Jerusalem.
Apparently bowing to deep Israeli sensitivities about all of Jerusalem being part of Israel, Mr. Baker has not specifically said that the assurances covered East Jerusalem.
Mr. Bush, questioned more broadly on the gulf crisis, said of Saddam Hussein: "I notice he's getting a little more bellicose. Once in a while you see a conciliatory statement, and then you hear a lot of heightened rhetoric about what he is going to do and what he's not going to do.
"Now I'm satisfied that we can defend our interests . . . and I am satisfied . . . that these threats of his are counterproductive in terms of . . . any peaceful resolution of the question."