Which Mr. Netanyahu Is Going to Washington?

Israel's leader meets his Cabinet Sunday. Is he ready to deal?

At the main event saluting Israel's 50th anniversary last week, one performance featured a jittery man walking a tightrope, gingerly trying to keep his balance.

"If I move to the left, I'll upset the religious right and fall. Leaning too far to the right is dangerous, too," said the aerialist, dressed in a blue business suit and tie. "I'll just stay right here in the middle and not move anywhere. Consensus! Status quo!"

The stadium audience roared. The circus high-wire act was a parody not just of the precarious line the state of Israel has walked in its 50-year history, but the state of its leadership under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It often seems as though Mr. Netanyahu is happy to be viewed as a pitiful man trying to walk that fine line and hold a fractured nation together. He likes to remind American negotiators of his predicament in the hopes of eliciting sympathy for his inability to make bold moves that could send him tumbling from power.

But now that 15 months have passed since any blip of progress has been made in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, the Clinton administration is wondering just how long Netanyahu plans to balance in place. A tightrope walker, after all, does inch over to the other side by the end of his act.

With a new spate of Arab-kills-Jew, Jew-kills-Arab violence Wednesday - and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat threatening to unilaterally declare a state by May 1999 if the peace process doesn't deliver one first - it doesn't seem feasible for Netanyahu to wobble in the same place forever.

But that won't keep him from trying. "I think he wants to keep walking the tightrope as long as he can," says Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Far-right members of Netanyahu's governing coalition are threatening to bolt if he agrees to give up more than 9 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. But they also know that if they cause Netanyahu to fall, Israel could end up with a leader who is much more eager to make peace with the Palestinians.

To Netanyahu, the playing field in the United States looks aligned in his favor. The Clinton administration gave him an ultimatum in London earlier this week: Agree to withdraw from 13 percent of the West Bank by the time you come to Washington Monday, or don't bother coming. But with strong support in Congress, Netanyahu hasn't blinked. In fact, he says, perhaps he won't come.

"I listen to proposals," Netanyahu says. "I don't listen to dictates."

Netanyahu may be calculating that with its eye on US congressional elections in November, the Clinton administration will be reluctant to put any real weight behind its ultimatum.

Saying Israel was being bullied by President Clinton, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia gave Netanyahu a vote of confidence Wednesday. "The Clinton administration continues to be pro-Arafat," he said. "On Israel's 50th anniversary, the Clinton administration says: 'Happy birthday, let us blackmail you on behalf of Arafat.' "

Even the Iraq crisis earlier this year, in which the US was harshly criticized by Arabs who decried a "double standard" in American policy toward Iraq and Israel, may have helped Netanyahu. It heightened Israelis' sense of vulnerability to attack by Arabs. Palestinian demonstrations in support of Saddam Hussein did Netanyahu's work for him, sending the message that at least some Palestinians were not really seeking peace - the underlying notion of Netanyahu's ideology.

Netanyahu says he won't make any decision on the Washington meeting until he meets with his Cabinet Sunday. He will go to Washington anyway for the annual convention of the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

SPREADING some hope that next week could produce a breakthrough, Israel has asked US envoy Dennis Ross to return to Jerusalem tomorrow for talks. And Israeli ultra-hawk Ariel Sharon, who could make or break Cabinet support for Netanyahu's decision, was due to meet in Washington yesterday with Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk.

Analysts say Netanyahu's rebuff of the US could be a tactic to make him look like he's controlling the show. "Netanyahu is basically sitting pretty," Dr. Hazan says. "I think what he's fishing for is a redefinition of the ultimatum. Then he can sell it to the government here by telling them that he's bringing them through another stage in the process."

Two schools of thought have emerged on Netanyahu's motives. Is he looking to stall on the high-wire forever, with an eye toward ending the peace process? Or is he just waiting to deal until the last minute, to show hard-liners that he fought to give away as little as possible?

Ron Pundak, one of two little-known Haifa professors who fathered the actual framework of the Oslo peace accords - which call for the immediate transfer of some power to the Palestinians and leave thorny issues like control of Jerusalem for last - says the two-year-old riddle hanging over Netanyahu may finally be solved next week.

"We have reached a moment of truth where the American administration wants to either clinch a deal or declare a dead end," he says. Netanyahu's posturing "could be a way to allow him to say he fought like a tiger. That is my hopeful assessment. But it could be that next week will prove that all of what he is doing is focused on killing the process."

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