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Travels With Newt

On the eve of his trip to Israel, House Speaker Newt Gingrich bowed to a White House request and scrapped plans to visit the proposed site of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.

However, the Speaker voiced sharp criticism of the White House's recent attempts to restart the deadlocked Mideast peace process by calling for an Israeli withdrawal from 13 percent of the West Bank.

Gingrich's spokeswoman, Christina Martin, did not say why the speaker was asked to change his plans to visit the controversial site. But a Palestinian peace negotiator had warned that Gingrich would be "playing with fire" if he went ahead with the visit.

"At the request of the Clinton administration, Speaker Gingrich will not be visiting the embassy site in Jerusalem," said Martin.

She said Gingrich's office usually coordinates his foreign travel with the administration. "We did it for China and we're doing it for Israel, and they simply requested that he did not attend."

Asked about the request to scrap the visit, White House spokesman Mike McCurry said he did not know "how or when that happened."

"But I wouldn't be surprised at that," he added. "That would be consistent with our views about the sensitivity of the embassy issue and consistent with what we've counseled others."

Meanwhile, in a commentary that appeared in the Jerusalem Post Friday, Gingrich said the Palestinians, not Israel, are largely to blame for the lack of progress in Mideast peace talks.

Gingrich suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is entitled to reject President Clinton's proposal for an Israeli troop pullback from 13 percent of the West Bank, which was captureded from Jordan in the 1967 War.

"Israel, and Israel alone, must define the requirements of Israeli security," wrote Gingrich, R-Ga. "A small nation that is surrounded by hostile neighbors and has had to fight repeated wars must plan for its security based on the worst-case scenario."

Gingrich begins a four-day trip to Israel on Saturday. The speaker supports moving the U.S. Embassy from its present location in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israel's capital.

The proposed embassy site's sensitivity stems from the disputed status of Jerusalem, part of which Palestinians claim as the future captial of a hoped-for Palestinian state.

The eastern sector of Jerusalem was annexed by Israel after it was captured from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel regards the city as its eternal, indivisible capital.

The Clinton administration wants to wait until the Jerusalem question is settled in final status talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as outilned in signed agreements between Israel and the Palestinianians.

A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration does not want to do anything that would "undercut the negotiations."

On hursday, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat warned Gingrich he could trigger bloodshed by meddling in the dispute over Jerusalem.

"I urge Mr. Gingrich to resort to sanity, wisdom, and far-sightedness and not to pour oil on the fire," Erekat said.

©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report