WASHINGTON | White House aides today disowned comments by Hillary Rodham Clinton about the need for a Palestinian state and insisted that she was speaking only for herself.
Mrs. Clinton’s remark came when she told a group of Arab and Israeli teen-agers that creating a state of Palestine was “very important for the broader goal of peace in the Middle East.”
With that statement, which was made in answer to a question, Mrs. Clinton stepped into a foreign policy minefield that American policymakers have always shied away from. The United States has never endorsed creating a Palestinian state, although President Carter set off a controversy in 1977 by calling for a Palestinian “homeland.”
White House officials today restated the Administration’s position, which is to say nothing that would appear to prejudge the outcome of the so-called final-status talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. “That view expressed personally by the First Lady is not the view of the President,” said Michael D. McCurry, the White House press secretary.
Peppered with questions about Mrs. Clinton’s comments and her role in foreign policy, Mr. McCurry said later, “I expect that she will always continue to express her views, but I doubt that she will venturing into the Middle East peace process anytime soon.” Mr. Clinton, in hastily prepared remarks about the Middle East, did not refer to Mrs. Clinton’s statements, but he emphasized that the United States was not trying to dictate how the negotiations would be resolved.
American Jewish groups reacted with alarm to Mrs. Clinton’s remarks.
“The timing couldn’t have been worse,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “If Israelis conclude that Hillary Clinton is a stalking horse for the Administration, in sort of testing the waters on this issue, then it’s going to undermine their confidence in the American role.” Despite the White House disavowals, some leading Jews wondered whether Mrs. Clinton was voicing the private beliefs of her husband.
Among Arab-Americans, the comments also caused a stir, although of a different nature. Hala Maksoud, the president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said: “We have been waiting for such a signal from any American Administration for a very long time. It’s a recognition of the fact that the Palestinian people should be treated like any other people in the world, and that they should not be denied a basic human right.”
She called the Administration’s disavowals “understandable under the present political situation,” but added, “It’s still very heartening that she should have said so in the first place.”
The reaction in Israel was muted today. Mrs. Clinton’s comments were reported in newscasts, but did not receive prominent play.
It is not clear that Mrs. Clinton knew that she was breaking with official policy. Soon after she made her comments, her office issued a statement in response to reporters’ inquiries that said: “These remarks are her own personal view. The Administration’s position on this matter has not changed.”
Mrs. Clinton was speaking via satellite with Arab and Israeli teen-agers holding a meeting in Villars, Switzerland, as part of a program called Seeds for Peace that is intended to teach peaceful coexistence. She first mentioned a Palestinian state in passing, in responding to the kind of question she loves, about whether Palestinian women should take part in political leadership.
“I would hope that women in the Palestine state, just as throughout the Middle East, would be given the opportunity to demonstrate their talents and make their contributions,” Mrs. Clinton said in part.
One of the students, alert to the explosive areas of the Middle East peace negotiations, later asked Mrs. Clinton what consequences there might be “for your declaration a few minutes ago of Palestine” given that “right now this country does not exist.”
Mrs. Clinton replied: “Well, I think that it will be in the long-term interests of the Middle East for Palestine to be a state and for it to be a state that is responsible for its citizens’ well-being, a state that has responsibility for providing education and health care and economic opportunity to its citizens, a state that has to accept the responsibility of governing.”
Mrs. Clinton said such a state was important not only for the Palestinians, but also for peace in the Middle East.
She then added that the territory the Palestinians “currently inhabit” along with whatever land they gain through peace negotiations, should “evolve into a functioning modern state that is responsible for the well-being of its people and is seen on the same footing as any other state in terms of dealing responsibly with all of the issues that state governments must deal with.”