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  •   Mideast, Impeachment: Similar Predicaments

    President Clinton addresses reporters at the Erez Crossing on the Gaza-Israel border Tuesday. (AFP)
    By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 16, 1998; Page A24

    JERUSALEM, Dec. 15—Attempting to salvage the Middle Eastern peace process, President Clinton on his visit here kept returning to the same plea: Retribution should give way to compromise.

    And as he flew back home tonight, Clinton hopes he can salvage his presidency from the ignominy of impeachment with an appeal to precisely the same theme.

    Clinton is famous as the Great Compartmentalizer, skilled at insulating his personal problems from his performance as president. What was striking on a dramatic four-day journey here, however, was how closely the challenges he faced on a historic yet frustrating diplomatic mission mirrored the historic confrontation that will greet him when he arrives at the White House late this evening.

    Was the Middle East or Washington foremost on Clinton's mind when he twice cited the same scriptural reference in speeches here? The line became the theme of this trip: "We are told that they who judge without mercy will be judged without mercy," Clinton sermonized to both Palestinians and Israelis. "But mercy triumphs over judgment."

    In both arenas, a president with a natural instinct for common ground finds himself vexed by political actors whose instincts steer them toward conflict. In the Middle East, Clinton was trying to preserve an important part of his legacy -- his previous success at nudging Israelis and Palestinians toward peace -- and in Washington he is in an increasingly dire struggle to avert the ugly gash impeachment would place on his legacy.

    Comparisons between the centuries-old antagonisms of the Middle East and the argument over whether Clinton's lies about a sexual relationship deserve censure or removal from office can only go so far.

    But a senior Clinton adviser said there are some similarities. The Wye River peace agreement is supported by a solid majority of Israelis, polls show, but bitterly opposed by the right wing of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud coalition. Administration officials said that reality is a main reason they did not succeed in persuading Netanyahu to meet a Friday deadline for Israel's next scheduled withdrawal from West Bank land, as called for in the Wye River interim peace agreement.

    And Clinton likewise is baffled that Republicans are pursuing impeachment with such determination even though a wide majority of the American people say they favor censure. Repeatedly on this trip Clinton was pressed with questions about the furor back home; announcing his desire for a "reasonable compromise," Clinton virtually campaigned for Congress to censure him, even if that includes some kind of additional penalties.

    But he returned late last nightto a capital in which few of his opponents seem interested in compromise. While Clinton can comprehend how extremism blossoms in the hateful cauldron of the Middle East, aides say he is genuinely mystified by what he considers the partisanship and vengefulness of House Republicans in the impeachment struggle.

    The question that hung over this trip was whether the impeachment struggle had diluted Clinton's ability to focus on his public duties. The reflexive answer of White House aides has always been that Clinton pays no mind to personal distractions while on the road. During this trip, aides said, Clinton was immersed in a demanding foreign schedule, but they made no attempt to suggest that the apparently deteriorating environment he is facing before this week's scheduled impeachment vote was far from his thoughts.

    "He's been focused throughout on the Middle East . . . but he's quite aware of what's going on at home," said White House senior adviser Douglas Sosnik. "He's concerned about it."

    While Clinton did not join here in the extensive lobbying campaign his aides back home are waging to persuade wavering House members, he did stay in touch with White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta and Deputy Chief of Staff Steve Richetti on the pending fight, aides said. He did not talk impeachment with the congressional delegation traveling with him, aides said, adding that Clinton might use tonight's 12-hour flight to try to win people to his side.

    But Clinton today hardly looked like an embattled man. He and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, joined by daughter Chelsea, spent the day on a sightseeing tour that had an important political subtext. In the morning, Arafat gave the family a tour of Bethlehem, a heavily Christian town in Palestinian-controlled land.

    While church bells pealed throughout the city where Christ was born, the Clintons toured the Church of the Nativity, hung Christmas ornaments and joined a choir singing "Joy to the World." All three Clintons, a family that the president has said has suffered because of his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, huddled close and flashed cheerful smiles.

    There was another equally vivid tableau later in the day. Clinton traveled to Masada, a mountain towering over the Dead Sea Valley that has deep spiritual and political significance to Israelis. It was here that 2,000 years ago that hundreds of Jewish men, women and children committed suicide rather than face capture by Roman forces. Masada has become a potent symbol of Israeli perseverance against hostile outsiders. While traveling across the country today, Clinton read a copy of Paul Johnson's "History of the Jews."

    While the trip showed Clinton's mastery of the symbols of diplomacy, it also showed how Clinton's vaunted political magic can fail him.

    The most vivid example came in a controversy over Clinton's comments on how both Palestinian and Israeli children have been victimized by war. Arafat, in a surprise that irked some administration officials, finished a Monday meeting with Clinton by introducing him to young girls whose fathers are in Israeli prisons. While television cameras rolled, one young girl complained to Clinton about Israeli cruelty in separating her from her father.

    Clinton used the incident in a later speech to send what he thought was a healing message: that both Israeli and Palestinian children are victimized by strife. But Clinton's Israeli hosts took deep offense. Senior government officials complained that he was implying moral equivalence between Israeli terror victims and imprisoned Palestinian criminals.

    The incident was an echo of the previous week -- when Clinton's latest apology for the Lewinsky episode only further infuriated Republicans, who complained that he was still failing to acknowledge lying under oath.

    In a season of problems at home and abroad, Clinton is finding that the soothing words at which he is so fluent sometimes manage only to inflame.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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