Palestinians upset Chretien avoids East Jerusalem

Even before he arrived, Prime Minister Jean Chretien was warned it would be hard not to upset somebody in the Middle East. And it didn't take long for the prediction to come true.

A Palestinian leader accused Chretien, the first sitting Canadian prime minister to go to the divided region, of hurting the peace process by not visiting East Jerusalem.

Chretien spent the first day of his tour of six countries visiting historical sites in Jerusalem, and meeting with Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

But he has no plans to go to Israeli-occupied Arab East Jerusalem, choosing instead to meet with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in Gaza.

When confronted about the decision at a news conference on Sunday, Chretien downplayed the matter, saying he doesn't know the area and couldn't say from one minute to the next if he's in the north, south, east, or west Jerusalem.

Barak, who was standing next to Chretien, smiled at the joke, but not everyone thinks the Canadian travel plans are funny. Faycal Husseini, the Palestinian minister for East Jerusalem, said Chretien's failure to visit the disputed sector is an insult.

Husseini argued that Chretien's decision means he is prejudging the outcome of the negotiations on the final status of Jerusalem, and suggesting that Israel should control the city.

Chretien has so far avoided taking sides in the peace process.

Earlier in the day, Chretien began his official visit to Israel by laying a wreath to the millions of Jews killed in the Nazi Holocaust.

Chretien and his wife, Aline, toured the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Chretien called it a deeply moving experience. But he ducked a question about Canada's poor record in deporting Nazi war criminals.

Yad Vashem is a memorial to those who died in the Nazi Holocaust. There are collections of pictures, videos, writings and personal articles belonging to those who were killed.

No room is more moving than the Children's Memorial built by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie a hall of mirrors reflecting the flame of a single candle.

The prime minister laid a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance as a rabbi recited the prayer for the martyrs.

The floor is inscribed with the names of the Nazi death camps, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz.

Chretien, who toured Auschwitz last year, said he was deeply moved by the Yad Vashem exhibits. "I'm happy to have visited and wrote that Canada will be always working to ensure that atrocities of this nature never occur again," he said.

But Chretien ducked a question about Canada's efforts in bringing suspected war criminals to justice. Chretien would only acknowledge that errors had been made in the past.

The 12-day trip also includes stops in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where the prime minister will promote closer economic ties and emphasize Canada's leadership in emerging high-tech industries.