(WASHINGTON DC) - The White House on Thursday suggested that aggressive diplomacy by former President Clinton triggered an increase of violence in the Middle East. "In an attempt to shoot the moon and get nothing, more violence resulted,'' President Bush's spokesman said.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer rejected the notion that Bush's policies have not worked, noting that the violence began while Clinton was still in office. And he turned aside the idea of talking with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as Clinton did, saying Bush does not want to create false expectations.
Asked about the Clinton administration's peace effort, Fleischer said: "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; that as a result of an attempt to push the parties beyond where they were willing to go, that 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.''
During his last months in office, Clinton was heavily engaged in pressing Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to strike an accord, but his intensive diplomacy failed.
Fleischer did not specifically mention Clinton, but was clearly talking about Bush's predecessor. He noted that "the violence really began at the end of 2000'' - during Clinton's term - "and accelerated through 2001.''
"It is important to be careful in the region, to proceed at a pace that is achievable and doable, and not to raise people's expectations falsely too high,'' Fleischer said. "The failure to reach that level created unmet expectations.''
Later, Fleischer said it would be wrong to characterize his remarks as a criticism of Clinton. He said he was simply rebutting the suggestion that violence began because of the lack of Mideast talks under the Bush administration.
"No United States president is to blame for violence in the Middle East,'' Fleischer said.
Meanwhile, the administration expressed concerned about Israeli's assault on two West Bank refugee camps. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the administration respects Israel's right to defend itself, but the United States is "especially concerned'' about the move on the refugee camp.
"Every effort should be made to avoid harm to civilians,'' he said.
Israel, the West Bank and Gaza have been wracked by violence for 17 months and it continued Wednesday, when Israeli troops killed four Arabs in gunbattles and, separately, a Palestinian worker shot an Israeli factory manager to death.
This week, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia floated an idea for ending the violence and renewing peace talks. Both Israel and the Palestinians have expressed interest in the Saudi proposal, though the Israelis reject a main element - withdrawal from all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
The Saudis suggest that in exchange, the entire Arab world would make peace with Israel.
Bush also likes the Saudi plan, but continues to press Arafat to rein in militants with more arrests.
"The most concrete thing the president is looking for (from Arafat) is a 100 percent effort to stop the violence,'' Fleischer said. "The president wants to make sure people are detained on a long-term permanent basis, not on a temporary revolving-door basis.''