`I will not resign,' says Clinton as he prepares for his longest week

Click to follow
PRESIDENT BILL Clinton insisted yesterday that he would not leave office voluntarily, nor admit to breaking the law. At the start of a momentous week in American politics, and a potentially fateful mission to Israel and the West Bank, a defiant and stony-faced Mr Clinton said: "I have no intention of resigning. It's never crossed my mind."

Mr Clinton, who last week became only the second president in US history to face a full House vote on impeachment, rebuffed demands to acknowledge he had lied under oath when he denied an affair with Monica Lewinsky. "I can't do that because I did not commit perjury," he said.

"I don't know what's going to happen," Mr Clinton added later at a joint press conference with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. "It's out of my hands."

The US President was speaking in Jerusalem, on the first leg of a Middle East trip that threatens almost as many risks as the political minefield back home. As journalists repeatedly questioned the US President on his future, Mr Netanyahu futilely urged them to focus on the endangered land- for-security deal signed at Wye in the US between Israel and the Palestinians.

But with the Wye Agreement threatening to unravel, a trip conceived as a celebration by the US President had turned into an emergency diplomatic salvage operation.

The discordant tone of the visit was set almost as soon as the President arrived at Tel Aviv airport. After the playing of national anthems, Mr Netanyahu welcomed Mr Clinton to Israel with a volley of warnings about Palestinian backsliding.

But the multi-layered wreckage of Middle East peace agreements seemed less perilous to Mr Clinton than the raging turmoil in Washington, where Republicans yesterday multiplied their calls for Mr Clinton to resign.

Henry Hyde, chairman of the House judiciary committee, yesterday said Mr Clinton should go. "Yes, I think the President should step down," he said. "I think he could be heroic if he did that."

The most senior politician to call for Mr Clinton's voluntary departure, Mr Hyde said resignation would provide a "quick and radical" end to the scandal. "If he doesn't, it's hard to predict the consequences."

Mr Hyde was speaking the morning after his committee approved all four draft articles of impeachment against the President: two alleging perjury, one obstruction of justice, and the fourth abuse and misuse of power. It also rejected the softer option of censure. Each article of impeachment - the formal charges that Mr Clinton would face if the full House votes for a Senate trial - was challenged by the Democrats, producing moments of high drama.

Minutes before the first vote - on the first perjury charge on Friday - television stations had interrupted transmissions to show Mr Clinton's latest apology, a last-ditch plea for indulgence from the White House Rose Garden. On Saturday, transmission of the passage of the fourth and last article was interrupted by the President's arrival in Israel.

The television screens split between sequences of the President standing straight in Israel, hand on heart, the very image of solemn authority, for the playing of the US national anthem, and shots of the committee, tired and fractious, bickering about definitions of lying and sexual misconduct.

With the articles of impeachment now passed, Mr Clinton's immediate fate rests with the House of Representatives which has been summoned back to Washington this Thursday for the crucial vote.

The defeat of the censure motion in committee makes it unlikely that a censure option will be placed before the full House. A majority for any one of the four articles makes a Senate trial all but inevitable.

Mr Clinton's constitutional disgrace is now set to surpass that of Richard Nixon, who resigned before the House could vote on a Senate trial.

With time running out, White House aides are desperately searching for a strategy to save Mr Clinton from disaster.

But the mood of the country could hardly be more different. The President may be in dire constitutional danger, a centrepiece of his diplomacy may be in shreds, but a surreal air of calm pervades the land beyond the proverbial Washington "Beltway".

Mr Clinton's job approval ratings persist above 60 per cent; according to the polls, his impeachment is opposed by almost as many; most favour a censure vote. Last month's congressional elections renewed the Democrats' - and the President's - mandate.

But the constitutional process moves on. It is out of kilter with the popular mood, but the voters are out Christmas shopping. "Wake up, America", said one of the more articulate Democrats on the judiciary committee last week as he tried in vain to turn the Republican tide. "Wake up; if they can do it to the President, they can do it to you."