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Hillary Tastes Mideast Muddle

On a visit to Jordan, Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized Palestinian officials Friday for pushing the statehood issue into the spotlight. The first lady said her hosts had not acted properly during her brief visit to the West Bank a day earlier.

Â"I do not believe any kind of inflammatory rhetoric or baseless charges are good for the peace process,Â" the first lady told reporters during a tour of the ancient Nabataean city of Petra.

In Jerusalem, Israeli officials expressed outrage after Soha Arafat, the wife of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, accused Israel of using Â"poison gasÂ" against Palestinians in comments she made in welcoming Mrs. Clinton to the West Bank town of Ramallah Thursday.

In the speech, Mrs. Arafat pushed the statehood issue and claimed there are increased rates of cancer among Palestinian women and children because of Â"intensive daily use of poison gas by the Israeli forces in the past years.Â" Mrs. Arafat did not specify what gas she was referring to.

Israeli Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon, who often speaks in the name of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, said Â"Israel cannot ignore incitement of the type that could almost be called blood libel.Â"

Ramon said the leaders should be preparing their peoples for peace, and that Mrs. Arafat was doing the opposite.

Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy demanded the government reconsider handing over West Bank territory to the Palestinians calling the comments a violation of peace deals.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Ziad Abu-Zayyad Friday tried to soften Mrs. Arafat's prepared remarks, saying she had not meant Israelis were poisoning Palestinian intentionally.

He said she was mainly referring to the Israeli army's liberal use of tear gas in dispersing Palestinian stone throwers. Palestinian activists have in the past blamed errant tear gas canisters for miscarriages by women -- but the cancer charges are new.

During her visit to Ramallah, Palestinian speakers constantly reminded Mrs. Clinton of her early support for Palestinian statehood, which also triggered an angry response from Israel and potentially complicated the first lady's efforts to court Jewish voters back home in a likely race for a Senate seat from New York.

Mrs. Clinton's possible opponent in the race, New York City Mayor Rudolf Giuliani, leaped on the first lady for not objecting to the poison gas remarks.

Â"The reaction was very disturbing. It's inconceivable that there would be no comment from Mrs. Clinton in the face of these abhorrent and ridiculous accusations,Â" said Bruce Teitelbaum, director of Giuliani's political action committee.

Â"I'm confident the mayor's reaction would have been completely different and he would have swiftly condemned the remarks, just like Barak did,Â" he said.

At Petra, Mrs. Clinton was asked why she did not respond to the Palestinian statehood calls earlier. She said the commens were not Â"worthy of any particular comments at that time.Â"

Earlier Friday, Mrs. Clinton said in a statement that the Ramallah remarks were an example of why President Clinton Â"at Oslo urged the parties to refrain from making inflammatory charges or engaging in excessive rhetoric and to deal with any issues at the negotiating table.Â"

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