Netanyahu Visit: A Fork in Road?

Tentative US-Israeli steps on new path

Benjamin Netanyahu, the American-educated prime minister who once so angered then-Secretary of State James Baker that he was banned from the State Department building, will tomorrow be ushered into the Oval Office by President Clinton on his first US visit as Israel's head of state.

With this trip, Washington is readying itself for another chapter in what has been termed America's "passionate attachment" to Israel. The question at hand: How much common ground will the two leaders find to push ahead peace in the Middle East?

What both parties want out of this visit, say US and Israeli officials, is a friendly tone, a posture of listening - and a short-term plan to keep Middle Eastern waters as smooth as possible leading up to US elections in November. This is a "getting to know you" meeting, a White House staffer says, with Mr. Clinton keeping one eye on his sizable constituency of Jewish voters.

Mr. Netanyahu represents the country Clinton has spent the most time and effort engaging as America's dominant ally in the Middle East. But Netanyahu's campaign was run in nearly total opposition to Clinton's efforts in an Arab-Israeli peace process that brings Arabs to the table on a more equal basis as peace partners.

Under the Labor government, Israel engaged in historic peace negotiations with their Arab counterparts that showed results - both with Palestinians and Jordanians. Netanyahu has not shown the same commitment to the peace process.

What the White House wants to hear, sources say, is "No big changes." Neither side predicts showdowns on substantive issues that Netanyahu champions, such as increasing the size of Israel's settlements in the occupied territories or adjusting the formula of land for peace with Syria.

Since the Israeli election, both leaders have made efforts to minimize their differences. Netanyahu, an American-style politician, softened US publicity beacheads prior to his arrival with several interviews and cable TV appearances where he made reasonable-sounding statements about peace, stressed flexibility, and hinted that he is a leader Washington can deal with.

Washington sources close to the Israeli government say Netanyahu will make it clear to the White House, in an agreeable way, that certain issues are now off the table. Namely, a shared Jerusalem and a Palestinian state.

When asked about these issues, State Department officials say they have no comment, since the subjects are being negotiated between the Israelis and Palestinians in compliance with the Olso peace accord. Sources say the White House will strongly encourage Netanyahu to resume the redeployment of its troops from the city of Hebron - as a visible symbol of some continuity with the Olso agreement.

The Washington event is being watched closely by the Arab and Islamic world. Arab leaders, fresh from their first summit in six years, are issuing veiled threats to dissuade Washington from taking a new and more accommodating line with the Likud government that Netanyahu is still in the process of forming.

Palestinians, especially, smart from statements made by Secretary of State Warren Christopher to the effect that Washington "will adjust" to Likud's policies - which many Arabs interpret as an about-face by the administration on its commitment to the spirit of the Olso agreement.

During his visit of five days, Netanyahu travels to Washington and New York. The new prime minister will also spend time on Capitol Hill, with leaders of the American Jewish community, and presumptive Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole.

SPECULATION abounds over the personal dynamics between Netanyahu and Clinton, the so-called "connective chemistry." The two heads of state are regarded in many ways to have similar styles - both voluble speakers, masters of the media, and great political tacticians.

Netanyahu first became known to Americans as Israel's advocate in the States during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s. He is ardently pro-American, and, unlike some in the Likud Party, an unashamed free-marketeer in the mold of a Margaret Thatcher.

Clinton, in turn, is "both intellectually and emotionally closer to Israel, than any previous American president," according to Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.

One area the two men are certain to spend a considerable amount of time on is the issue of terrorism. Netanyahu has authored books on the subject. Clinton signed recently a comprehensive antiterrorism bill; he also engineered the antiterrorism summit in Egypt after four suicide bombings in Israel earlier this year. Secretary Christopher and Netanyahu's team have already agreed to meet more regularly on the issue.

Yet Clinton is meeting with a leader whose vision of Israel springs from a much sharper Zionist edge than those of his predecessors, former Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, with whom the American president became a strong partner. Netanyahu is more deeply suspicious of efforts to enter into partnerships with Arab regimes that could later undermine Israel's security.

In that sense, how talks on "preconditions" go will yield the first signs of White House relations with Netanyahu. Having no preconditions - Netanyahu's position on the peace process - simply means that everything is on the table again: water, land, settlements, the Golan Heights, even Jerusalem. Netanyahu is willing to negotiate, but without any expectations or assumptions of results. The formula would change the basis of land for peace that has been at the heart of both long-time US and UN positions. The White House position on preconditions is unknown.

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