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Bush spokesman apologizes for Clinton comments

Fleischer: "The only people to blame for violence are the terorrists who engage in it."  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- White House spokesman Ari Fleischer issued a public apology Thursday for comments suggesting that President Clinton's failed Middle East diplomacy sparked the violence between the Israelis and Palestinians in the fall of 2000.

"Earlier today, in response to a question ... I mistakenly suggested that increasing violence in the Middle East was attributable to the peace efforts that were underway in 2000," Fleischer said in a late afternoon statement. "That is not the position of the administration."

Fleischer went on to say that President Bush has consistently supported President Clinton's efforts "at the behest of the parties" to reach a final comprehensive peace agreement in the region.

His about-face came after he suggested Clinton's efforts contributed to the violence that has wracked the Middle East since the collapse of the Camp David talks.

"No United States president, including President Clinton, is to blame for violence in the Middle East," Fleischer said. "The only people to blame for violence are the terrorists who engage in it. I regret any implication to the contrary."

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A former Clinton administration told CNN, "I am glad the president and others saw as we did that Mr. Fleischer's comments were inaccurate and unnecessary."

Speaking during his morning meeting with reporters, Fleischer labeled Clinton's mediation efforts an "attempt to shoot the moon" by pushing the parties toward an agreement that they were not ready to reach. He said that contributed to the violence that broke out after the Camp David talks failed.

"It is important to be careful in the region, proceed at a pace that is achievable and doable and not to raise people's expectations so high, by trying to reach something the parties cannot agree to themselves," Fleischer said. "Because the failure to reach that level created unmet expectations, and that resulted in violence."

Following those comments, Samuel Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, called Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, to express the Clinton administration's displeasure at Fleischer's comments, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Clinton is on a trip to Australia. In a written statement on behalf of the former president, spokeswoman Julia Payne said, "It is unfortunate that the spokesman for the president, discussing the Middle East, suggested that the United States is somehow responsible for the violence there, particularly the Clinton administration."

Payne continued, "The Clinton administration worked energetically for peace in the Middle East in the tradition of every president for over 30 years, because of the stakes involved and our deep concern that the situation would descend into violence in the absence of peace."

During Fleischer's afternoon briefing with reporters, which was televised, the Bush spokesman seemed to soften his comments, but he did not completely backtrack from his earlier statement.

Fleischer said he was simply trying to correct an impression he felt was left by the question that the president's failure to meet with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat might be contributing to the violence.

"For decades, American presidents have wrestled with how to bring peace to the Middle East," Fleischer said. "President Clinton tried valiantly to do so. Nobody should be surprised if President Bush has a different approach.

"What is important is to correct is an impression left by a question this morning that President Bush's approach has been what led to more violence because that's not an appropriate question."

Senior Bush administration officials have indicated privately that they disagreed with Clinton's approach and that the Bush administration would take a different tack.

In fact, the administration did not inject itself right away into Middle East peacemaking, but over time, dispatched CIA Director George Tenet to the region and named retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni as a U.S. envoy.

In the latest move, the State Department's top Middle East official, William Burns, is on his way back from Saudi Arabia, where he went to discuss a Saudi peace initiative that calls for recognition of Israel and full normalization of relations between the Arab world and Israel, in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to the borders in place before the 1967 Six-Day War.




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