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Russia’s Yeltsin Visits Holy Land

January 5, 2000

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Boris Yeltsin said Wednesday he felt ``like a saint″ after arriving in the Holy Land on a Christmas pilgrimage that afforded the pomp and security befitting the head of state he was until last week.

He was greeted at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv by Education Minister Yossi Sarid, one of the highest ranking ministers currently in Israel, in an informal welcome ceremony organized by the Foreign Ministry’s protocol department.

``It’s a private visit, but he will get the reception accorded to a figure of his stature _ `ex’ or not,″ said Yaffa Ben-Ari, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry. Israel’s prime minister and foreign minister are in the United States holding peace talks with Syria.

Yeltsin appeared pleased to be in the Holy Land at Orthodox Christianity’s Christmas season.

``On holy land, I feel like a saint,″ he joked to the crowd of reporters who met him and his wife at the Jerusalem Hilton. He seemed ruffled, though, after an hour-long drive in an armored Russian limousine through driving sleet and rain.

The former Russian president’s official schedule hints at the health problems he says prompted his resignation.

It includes frequent rest stops at his hotel, and significantly omits an appearance at the midnight Mass in Bethlehem on Thursday night _ apparently because the service is a grueling three-plus hours, much of it standing up, although Christmas is ostensibly the reason for Yeltsin’s visit.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has invited the leaders of seven European nations where Orthodox Christianity predominates to attend Christmas services in Bethlehem on Thursday and Friday.

It’s a rehearsal of the presidential duties Arafat hopes to assume when he declares statehood by the end of this year, as he has pledged to do.

Yeltsin was invited as president weeks ago, and although he relinquished that role to Vladimir Putin last week, he understood that the attention he was getting was linked in part to Arafat’s ambitions.

``We have supported and we shall further support″ the peace process, he said. ``We have had numerous meetings with Arafat and we shall support him in order to hasten the process of two countries coming together.″

Russia hopes to re-establish the influence it once wielded in this region, a prospect that appeals to Palestinians, who see Russia as a counter to what they perceive as pro-Israel American policy.

Yeltsin will have private meetings with Arafat, Israeli President Ezer Weizman and acting Prime Minister Yitzhak Mordechai during his 72 hours here.

The Russian church is acting as Yeltsin’s host in the Holy Land, and is staying at the Hilton _ the newest and most expensive of Jerusalem’s luxury hotels.

Hilton deputy manager Guy Klaiman said the Yeltsins would stay in the same room occupied by President Clinton and his wife a year ago during a critical juncture in the peace process _ except Hilton staff extended the bed by eight inches to accommodate Yeltsin’s height.

Klaiman said the Yeltsins would eat all meals at the hotel, noting that the Russians had forwarded 1,100 pounds of Russian delicacies to satisfy the palates of the 150-member entourage, including the Russian foreign minister and other senior officials.

The Hilton was forced to turn away the food, Klaiman said, because it was not kosher _ blessed by rabbis according to Jewish religious ritual. The church donated the food to Jerusalem’s poor.

Also banned _ this time on Russian orders _ were the traditional pile of sweets the Hilton leaves for its guests. Officials were worried that Yeltsin would be tempted by foods that would hurt his ailing system.

Instead, Klaiman said, ``We will offer him a wide array of fruit,″ including cherries imported from France.

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