Mideast visit has Clinton stepping on a lot of toes

October 26, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent Danna Bethlehem in Jerusalem contributed to this article.

AMMAN -- President Clinton is plunging into a thicket of pride and prejudice on the Middle East visit he begins today.

The hasty arrangements for this warp-speed visit -- six countries in three days -- already have trod on some tender political toes in the region.

The American tour and its side effects have managed to miff important Palestinians and Israelis, raise alarms in the royal palace in Jordan, and create a migraine for the security forces of the countries Mr. Clinton is visiting.

All of these boil out of the complicated stew of Middle East politics, where old grudges and suspicious rivalries require a cautious approach. Mr. Clinton's whistle-stop tour leaves no time for such caution.

"Basically you have what is a six-day trip crammed into about three days," an official acknowledged at the start of the journey.

Among those annoyed is Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Just one year ago, he was the center of attention as he stood beaming in Washington with Mr. Clinton and Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin. Yesterday he was hunkered down in the Gaza Strip, uninvited to today's ceremony.

"They can drink sea water," Mr. Arafat said bitterly of Jordan and Israel, and their developing alliance -- tacitly endorsed by the Americans -- over the issue of Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Mayor Ehud Olmert also was reported to be steaming. Mr. Clinton plans a late-night tour of the Old City tomorrow, but not in Mr. Olmert's company.

Arab East Jerusalem and the Old City still are considered occupied territory by the United States. Mr. Clinton reportedly did not want to appear to legitimize Israeli claims to the Old City by wandering around the place in the tow of the Israeli mayor.

"It could affect the whole atmosphere of the visit" if Mr. Clinton does not relent, a spokesman for the mayor threatened.

In Jordan, King Hussein also was worried about atmosphere. The spotlight surrounding Mr. Clinton's visit and the peace treaty with Jordan's old enemy Israel could heat up the emotions of Palestinians, he fears.

He has reason to be wary. An estimated half of Jordan's population is of Palestinian origin, and the PLO had designs on his throne until it was evicted in bloody clashes in 1970. With Mr. Arafat sniping at the accord from Gaza, the king issued a thinly veiled warning Monday night in an address to top military officers.

"Go back to the Seventies," he said in a pointed reminder, an unusual public reference to one of the darkest episodes of his monarchy. "I do not want to bring back the pain and the tragedy and suffering."

In the era of single-superpower politics, Israel and the Arab countries are scrambling to lay out the red carpet. But that is not so easy when the carpet must be lined with thousands of police.

About 4,500 guests are expected at today's ceremony on the Israeli-Jordanian border for the signing of the peace treaty between the two countries. They will be guarded by at least 10,000 Israeli police, thousands more Jordanian police, and a phalanx of more than 100 American Secret Service agents.

Security preparations

Huge American C-5 Galaxy planes landed in Israel and Amman in recent days. Security officials unloaded tons of equipment, including three Black Hawk helicopters and armored limousines for the president.

Airspace over the Arava desert location of the ceremony will be closed, and access from the Red Sea closed.

U.S. security officials asked Israel to close the major north-south highway leading to the Arava site, a move that would have cut off a goodly chunk of the southern part of the country. Israeli officials agreed to close it only during the ceremony.

"People used to hate Kissinger," recalled one Jerusalem resident of the shuttle diplomacy of former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. "Every time he came into town, the streets were closed and the traffic jams enormous. Clinton might meet the same reaction."

Today's signing will take place on a stretch of desert, and yesterday work crews were busy arranging and rearranging the bleachers for best televisual effect. Jordanian and Israeli planners argued about the height of the stage (the Jordanians wanted 20 inches, the Israelis four feet), the location of the rows of portable toilets (out in the desert or behind the bleachers) and the approach of the dignitaries' cars (straight on, or circle the field).

A sandstorm blew down some of the bleachers, and an unexpected rain caused the stand-ins rehearsing the ceremony to take shelter in the goat's hair Bedouin tent to be used as a backdrop.

For those trying to mind both protocol and security, the president's trip is a complex nightmare. Not only is there a threat of violence from extremist organizations such as Hamas, but how are the American security personnel to know who is friend or foe? In Israel, for example, large numbers of civilians walk around with pistols in their belts.

Security, local style

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