Peace Process in Limbo After Netanyahu Visit

After an extraordinarily active five days of speeches and meetings, new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves the US without conceding his hard-line position on the Middle East peace process.

He also will take home with him the strongest US support to date for an undivided Jerusalem for the Jews.

The trip leaves a large question mark for the White House about how to proceed in the Middle East, analysts say. The administration does not want further violence or instability in the region between now and November, which could be used by Republicans as an election issue. "Clinton may have to do some heavy lifting with Netanyahu, just to keep a minimum level of progress," says a Middle East expert with ties to the White House.

Still, the White House put a positive spin on the future, while reiterating that its support for the policy of land for peace would not change. As the "major intermediary" in the region, the US will remain strongly engaged, says State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns. "This is no time to give up on the peace process. There is a lot of doom and gloom out there in the US and Arab press. We don't agree. There is still hope."

Mr. Netanyahu's visit to Israel's best friend abroad was keenly anticipated by Washington and the Arab world as the first sign of what to expect from the new Likud government. Some anticipated that Netanyahu would deliver a softer line on Arab relations. But Netanyahu's message was clearly one of "peace through strength."

Two days after a meeting between Netanyahu and President Clinton, which sources characterized as "friendly" on a personal level but "difficult" when the talk turned to substance, the administration was still examining its options on how to proceed in "a new era."

"It was a difficult meeting on the issues," says an administration source. "We hoped for and strongly urged greater movement on the Palestinian front and on land for peace. It didn't happen."

Mr. Clinton has invested three years in a peace process that initiated a withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank and Gaza and led to normal relations with Jordan. Prior to Netanyahu's visit, the White House hoped for small concessions from him to show the process was not in limbo, and to seal a working relationship between negotiating parties. After Secretary of State Warren Christopher's visit to Tel Aviv last month, rumors of a possible deal ranged from an agreement to redeploy Israeli troops out of the West Bank city of Hebron to a timetable for meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Instead, Washington heard dueling versions of history. In a joint press conference after meeting with Netanyahu on Tuesday, Clinton stressed the need to continue the peace accords between Israel and its Arab neighbors: "I believe that we need to keep the tide of history going...."

Netanyahu countered at a joint meeting of Congress: When faced with undemocratic regimes, "the most important lesson of the 20th century," he said, is peace through the "deterrence of war."

Netanyahu, traveling with 20 Israeli security guards, emphasized the dangers faced by democratic Israel, surrounded by "undemocratic states." He put the onus on the Palestinians to fulfill their part of the Oslo accords by halting terrorism. Netanyahu said he was open to ending the closure on Palestinians, which restricts their right to work in Israel, but only when "I deem it is safe."

The prime minister scored points with the American public by saying his government would wean itself from $1.2 billion in US nonmilitary aid, though he did not set a date. Israel currently receives an additional $1.8 billion in US military aid.

At every opportunity, and in a clear departure from the approach of his predecessors, Netanyahu affirmed that a Jerusalem jointly controlled by Jews and Arabs is not a subject for negotiation with the Arab world. He also criticized Palestinian officials for continuing to use the Orient House, their unofficial headquarters in East Jerusalem, calling it a violation of the Oslo accords. "There will never be a re-division of Jerusalem," the prime minister told Congress. The emotional line received a standing ovation.

Reaction to the prime minister's trip was expectedly mixed. Arab-Americans are "troubled and concerned" about "an abandonment of the basics of peace," says James Zogby of the Arab American Institute in Washington. "It will not be acceptable to the Arab world for Netanyahu to freeze Israel's gains while stalling on justice for the other side."

Liberal Israeli and American Jews also expressed dismay that negotiation on Israeli troop deployment has halted. "Israel cannot rule over occupied peoples. You can't have part of Palestinians ruled by Israelis, and part ruled by the Palestinian Authority," says Peace Now official Gail Pressburg. "It won't work."

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