Israel, U.S. offer polite reassurances Clinton, Netanyahu reaffirm intentions on peace, national ties

July 10, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured President Clinton yesterday that he would strive to keep the Middle East peace process alive. But the Israeli leader made clear that his first priority was protecting Israel from terrorist attacks.

"We have a determination to work with those Arab leaders who are interested in seeking peace," Netanyahu said in his first visit to the United States as Israel's head of government.

He added that it would be a "bad mistake" to turn away from the peace negotiations.

"I believe that the tide of history cannot be turned back," he said.

Netanyahu made those observations while standing beside Clinton at a joint White House news conference.

It was one of the few times in his presidency when Clinton seemed content to take a back seat to a foreign leader in his company. While his Israeli counterpart spoke, Clinton listened intently, hands folded in front of him, his eyes on Netanyahu's face.

One White House foreign policy official characterized the meeting between the two as "serious," and said: "It was a beginning."

"We didn't modify our position, and he certainly didn't modify his," the official said. "He tried to signal to us that he is interested in peace -- and I'm sure he is. But with him, security always comes first. He's just not going to take the chances for peace that [former Prime Minister Shimon] Peres would have."

In his remarks, Clinton reaffirmed the bonds between Israel and the United States.

"Israel has changed governments but, as I told the prime minister, the historic relationship between the United States and Israel has not and will not change," he said.

Netanyahu sounded the same theme, saying that the relationship between the two nations "transcends personalities and politics and parties."

This was a delicate reference to the open support by the Clinton administration for Peres, Netanyahu's opponent in the May 29 Israeli election.

This week's visit is envisioned by both governments as an opportunity to build the foundation for a future personal relationship.

"This is a region of the world and a subject where personal relationships count to an extraordinary degree," said White House press secretary Mike McCurry. "This was never going to be a meeting that produced a major breakthrough in the peace process. They were both trying to develop a personal rapport that will be very, very key as the process moves forward."

When they appeared in public, the chemistry between the two men was hard to read.

In their private meeting, Netanyahu laid out his position for the president in a deliberate and precise manner, one White House official said. Netanyahu's presentation did not differ substantively from what he said in his campaign or his remarks at the news conference, when he said that the peace process cannot co-exist with terrorist attacks on Israel's citizens -- and that everything else would take a back seat.

For his part, White House officials said, Clinton expressed the U.S. view that additional Israeli settlements in the occupied Arab territories would be unwise, that pulling Israeli troops out of the West Bank city of Hebron would be a positive gesture and that meeting face to face with Arafat might get the peace process moving again.

Asked by reporters if Netanyahu should meet with Arafat, Clinton offered only a gentle nudge, saying: "The more contact the better."

Netanyahu also was polite, but made it plain that he would not be rushed.

"I said that if I deem it necessary for peace or for the interest of Israel to meet Arafat, I wouldn't rule it out," he said.

In Jerusalem, Palestinian leaders called on Clinton to pressure Netanyahu to reopen the Gaza Strip, which the Israeli army sealed after last winter's suicide bombings in Israel.

"The peace process is slipping out of our hands like sand," said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Cabinet minister. "There seems to be no indication the Americans will put pressure on Netanyahu to continue the peace process."

Netanyahu's response came in Washington, where he repeated his demand that Palestinian leaders put a stop to terrorist attacks on Israel. He suggested that if this were done, he would meet with Arafat and reopen Gaza.

Netanyahu acknowledged that the ban causes economic hardship for the Arabs who live there and said: "As soon as I deem the security conditions will allow it, I will ease the closure."

Pub Date: 7/10/96

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