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Getting in the president’s way

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This is no way for a nation to conduct foreign policy.

Two weeks ago, Hillary Clinton made her husband's administration look clumsy and amateurish by saying publicly that the Palestinians deserve their own state. Now, House Speaker Newt Gingrich has gone one further by standing in front of the Knesset and declaring Jerusalem "the united and eternal capital of Israel." In fact, clumsy and amateurish doesn't begin to describe it.Gingrich compounded the problem by subsequently calling Secretary of State Madeleine Albright a "Palestinian agent." Just trying to help the peace process, he said later.

How, exactly?

Negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians are, to put it mildly, delicate. As a facilitator to those talks, the United States must covet one asset above all others, and that is credibility. How can credibility be enhanced when one of the nation's top legislative leaders is calling the secretary of state names?

Historically, both Congress and the president have been pro Israel. Hillary's comments likely were meant to help swing the pendulum of perception in an unofficial way. They did nothing but confuse. Gingrich's comments served to reinforce old perceptions and anger the Palestinians, and they only furthered the confusion.

The United States has worked hard through the years to distance itself from the Jerusalem question until such time as it is resolved through negotiations. That is why the State Department maintains an embassy in Tel Aviv and only a consulate in Jerusalem. Three years ago, Congress passed a law requiring the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem by May 31, 1999. Gingrich sponsored that bill, as well, and it also has done little to help the process.

True, President Clinton has been tentative and indecisive in foreign policy matters, which doesn't help the current situation. But this is one area where congressional leaders should step aside and let him negotiate.

In the Oslo accords, the question of Jerusalem's future deliberately was left as the final hurdle to be decided near the end of the five-year timetable. That is because it evokes strong emotions on both sides. At the moment, the administration is merely trying to broker an Israeli withdrawal from part of the West Bank. Jerusalem's future is way down the list, and the five-year deadline has proved wildly optimistic.

Gingrich, as well as Hillary, should stop getting in the way.