- The Washington Times - Friday, March 1, 2002

Bush White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer yesterday retracted his criticism of President Clinton's Middle East policy, although Vice President Richard B. Cheney has been far more critical.

During a morning meeting with reporters, Mr. Fleischer said Mr. Clinton had tried to "shoot the moon" in the Middle East peace summit at Camp David in July 2000. When Mr. Clinton ended up with "nothing, more violence resulted," Mr. Fleischer added.

Mr. Fleischer repeatedly refused to back down from his comments during a second meeting with reporters in the afternoon but later issued a rare formal retraction.

"I mistakenly suggested that increasing violence in the Middle East was attributable to the peace efforts that were underway in 2000," Mr. Fleischer said in the written statement. "That is not the position of the administration.

"As President Bush has consistently said, he supported President Clinton's efforts … to achieve a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. No United States President, including President Clinton, is to blame for violence in the Middle East.

"The only people to blame for violence are the terrorists who engage in it," he added. "I regret any implication to the contrary."

But a year ago, Mr. Cheney sharply criticized Mr. Clinton's attempt to broker a comprehensive peace accord between Palestininan leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in a two-week Camp David summit.

"You've got to look at the situation we inherited in the Middle East and, frankly, it's a mess," Mr. Cheney said in a March 2, 2001, interview with editors and reporters of The Washington Times.

Mr. Cheney said the July 2000 talks "went haywire, putting Jerusalem front and center as the sort of be-all and end-all of negotiations before it was really ripe for solution."

He said the peace process "blew up" and the Middle East descended into violence in September 2000.

Yesterday's flap began when April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks suggested to Mr. Fleischer there was less violence in the Middle East when Mr. Clinton was negotiating with Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat. Mr. Bush, by contrast, has refused to meet with the Palestinian leader.

"It seems that the violence was quelled a lot when former President Clinton had both parties at the table," Miss Ryan said in the White House press briefing room.

"And now it's leaving Arafat out and dealing with Israel. I mean, do you see something wrong here? Maybe both sides need to come together again.

"Maybe Arafat needs to be talked to again with Israel," she said. "And maybe some things will calm down, instead of leaving one side out."

Mr. Fleischer disputed the reporter's premise. "Actually, I think if you go back to when the violence began, you can make the case that in an attempt to shoot the moon and get nothing, more violence resulted," he said.

"As a result of an attempt to push the parties beyond where they were willing to go," he added, "it led to expectations that were raised to such a high level that it turned into violence.

"And that took place as a result of trying to push for an agreement that was not reachable at the time because the parties didn't want to agree to what the United States was pushing for," he said. "The president has always maintained that no agreement can take hold unless the parties agree to it."

During his afternoon press briefing, Mr. Fleischer said Mr. Bush preferred an "incremental" approach to the peace process, as opposed to Mr. Clinton's failed bid for "an immediate comprehensive solution."

Dennis Ross, who was Mr. Clinton's special envoy to the Middle East, said Mr. Fleischer's remarks lacked an understanding of history.

"For years I was criticized as being someone who wanted to pursue things on a step-by-step basis, consistent with what the traffic would bear," Mr. Ross told The Washington Times. "And some of the same people who were criticizing me for being an incrementalist were then, after Camp David, saying: Well, how could you go for everything?"

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