Today's U.S. trip important for Netanyahu Israeli leader faces government disarray, White House doubts


JERUSALEM -- Benjamin Netanyahu leaves today for his first visit to the United States as prime minister of Israel, his government in disarray and his plans for the Mideast peace effort still unclear, but determined to win over the country where he was raised and educated.

Netanyahu has made no secret of the importance he places on this trip, his first foreign foray since he was elected May 29. He is clearly eager to win the approval of the Clinton administration, which actively opposed him in the election and remains skeptical about his intentions toward the Arabs.

The 46-year-old prime minister has worked hard to prepare a package to display in the United States, declaring in numerous interviews and meetings that he is dedicated to making peace and to streamlining Israel's economy and insisting that Israeli-American relations are "like a rock."

As the first popularly elected prime minister in Israeli history, Netanyahu has also tried to give his office a more American style, adding high-level security and economic councils to the prime minister's staff and inviting more media coverage of his family life.

Yet on the eve of Netanyahu's departure, the image that has emerged so far is different from what he had evidently intended. His government remains entangled in disputes over power and money, and it is not even clear whether his coalition will survive in its present configuration.

Despite shifts in formulations and tone, his peace policies remain largely a collection of slogans and hints, and his government's contacts with the Palestinian Authority have been only through an adviser.

"The mass of interviews do not help in understanding what he is going to do tomorrow, in two months or two years from now," wrote Zvi Barel, a commentator in the daily newspaper Ha'aretz. "What are the borders of the Palestinian autonomy? What conditions are included when he says there are 'no preconditions' to negotiations?"

Domestically, Netanyahu's main problem has been trying to find a slot in his government for Ariel Sharon, a hard-line former general and defense minister. Threatened with an embarrassing defection by Foreign Minister David Levy if Sharon was excluded from the Cabinet, Netanyahu decided to borrow pieces from other ministries to form a new Ministry of Infrastructure to offer Sharon.

Over the weekend, Netanyahu's chief of staff, Avigdor Lieberman, made an unusual public show of irritation at a Likud meeting when he declared: "At every step or appointment, we go through an unprecedented campaign of slander and incitement."

Even Netanyahu's personal life has not escaped turmoil, with a widely publicized brouhaha that erupted after his wife, Sara, fired a nanny, and the nanny went to the press with a most unflattering picture of Mrs. Netanyahu.

Normal Israeli tumult

Much of the chaos could be attributed to the normal tumult of Israeli politics, to the change of government, to Netanyahu's inexperience in the job, and to the novelty of a having a prime minister with more power by virtue of being directly elected. Netanyahu himself has maintained a public calm, assuring interviewers that the problems are all part of a normal readjustment.

"Most people, when they watch my activities, see the oscillations, and don't see the general direction until they remove to a distance," he said in an interview on Thursday.

"The fact is that in the last two weeks, we've moved quite a distance," he added. "We formed a government in record time; we managed, in record time, to pass the budget-cut decision, which I think is very significant; we opened up channels to Arab neighbors and those beyond the immediate circle; we're preparing to go to the United States to reaffirm our relationship. And yes, there are some tail ends of the coalition-making process that we're dealing with, and we will resolve all of them."

The trip's importance

In any case, Netanyahu's trip to the United States is likely to overshadow much of the initial disarray. One reason is the traditional importance that Israelis place on links to America; another is the emphasis Netanyahu himself gives to the trip; and a third is the expectation that the prime minister will have to declare some concrete intentions in Washington.

The Clinton administration is expected to look closely for ways to maintain the momentum of the peace effort that began under President Clinton's patronage with the reconciliation of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel on the White House lawn in 1993.

Netanyahu has said in interviews that he intends to continue negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, but he has couched fTC this under conditions that leave unclear whether the Palestinians will find any reason to keep talking.

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