THE Clinton administration this week did its best to act friendlier to Israel than its Republican predecessor ever did.
On his first visit to the Clinton White House, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin received warm support, plus a promise that United States aid won't be cut and a hint of greater strategic cooperation in the future. The young, gregarious, nonsmoking American president even found some personal common ground with his older, formal, chain-smoking Israeli counterpart: policy wonkdom.
"They engaged deeply with one another on the substantive issues and got quickly into them," said a senior State Department official who briefed reporters on the visit on condition his name not be used.
The effect of this new rapport on the Middle East peace process is unclear. Perhaps the Israeli Labor prime minister, sure of US support, will feel secure enough to make breakthrough land-for-peace concessions. Or perhaps he will feel secure enough to make no real concessions at all.
Palestinians are already accusing Mr. Clinton of pro-Israeli bias. In general, Arabs appear anxious about the absence of George Bush and James Baker, whom they considered relatively fair arbiters.
It remains to be seen whether Clinton has "a personal commitment in the same magnitude and in the same direction as that displayed by Bush and Baker," says Khalil Jhashan, executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans.
US officials say that their primary objective for Mr. Rabin's visit was to build trust and confidence between the two leaders. Relations between President Bush and conservative Likud Prime Minister Shamir were notoriously frosty, and a Democratic administration widely seen as more pro-Israeli wanted to change the atmosphere.
Thus the reassurance on aid. Key members of Congress have been discussing a reduction in the level of US support for Israel, now at around $3 billion a year in military and economic funds. But Clinton stressed to Rabin that he would try to keep aid from being reduced not only next year, but for the foreseeable future.
Rabin repeated that he is ready to compromise on the issue of pulling back from the Golan Heights. Israel captured the strategic, plateau-like Golan from Syria during the 1967 Middle East War, and since then it has been a main issue on the peace agenda between the two nations.
But as before, Rabin declined to say how much of the Golan Heights he is willing to give up.
"We'll not enter negotiations on the dimension of the withdrawal without knowing what kind of peace Syria offers us," he said.
What infuriated Palestinians was what they perceived as nonchalance by Clinton and Rabin toward 396 Palestinians with alleged ties to terrorism that Israel deported last December.
US officials said, pointedly, that the subject didn't even come up. They said they considered the matter closed after Rabin and Secretary of State Warren Christopher worked out a deal Feb. 1 whereby 100 of the deportees could return immediately, with the rest to follow by year's end. The deportees have thus far refused repatriation until all are allowed back.
Palestinian negotiators say they will boycott the next round of the peace talks, set for April 20 in Washington, unless the deportees are allowed back.
"It is obvious that they are trying to shove the deportee issue aside," said Hanan Ashrawi, chief Palestinian peace talks spokes-woman.
US officials are counting on the fact that other Arab nations, notably Syria and Egypt, appear inclined to attend the talks anyway to bring the Palestinians around.
Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argues that the Christopher-Rabin deportee deal that's already been cut augurs well for the Palestinians. Palestinians have been pushing for two things in the talks, Mr. Satloff says: a more active US role and Israeli concessions on key issues as a result.
With the deportee deal they got both, even though they don't like the outcome. It's the precedent that is important, Satloff argues. "It's to the Palestinians' negotiating advantage that the US and the Israelis have the relationship they have now," he says.