President's Israeli headache Netanyahu to bring little to Washington

January 16, 1998|By Mark Matthews and Ann LoLordo | Mark Matthews and Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For most of his first term, Bill Clinton was spared one presidential headache that afflicted several of his predecessors: squabbles with the prime minister of Israel.

Clinton revered Yitzhak Rabin, and he found a willing partner in Shimon Peres, who served briefly after Rabin's assassination in 1995.

But after an initial period of good feelings, Clinton's attitude toward the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has become one of arm-waving exasperation and sometimes anger.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, is pained by how the relationship has soured, a top Israeli official said.

Captive of a fractious coalition, he covets Clinton's executive power and is frustrated by his inability to fulfill commitments he made to the president to keep the peace process advancing, said the official.

As the two men prepare for their sixth and perhaps most confrontational meeting Tuesday, an atmosphere of tension is almost palpable after a rocky, sometimes violent year of setbacks in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Aides say Clinton will demand concessions from both the prime minister and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader -- whom he will meet two days later -- and will warn them that the impasse is unacceptable and risks a deeper crisis in the region and internationally.

"He's expecting hard decisions from the parties and is not afraid of hard decisions himself," a Clinton administration official said.

How swiftly the relationship has frayed since Netanyahu's first visit as prime minister in July 1996.

The White House then made a point of welcoming Netanyahu to compensate for the fact that Clinton had clearly favored the losing candidate, Peres, over Netanyahu in the 1996 Israeli election campaign.

Clinton needn't have worried: "He doesn't hold grudges," the Israeli official said of Netanyahu.

The two leaders had much in common: their youth, their ease in front of the American media, even the kind of criticism each draws at home, the Israeli official notes: "doubts about their credibility, their veracity ."

"The first meeting was very, very good -- two boomers with all the right generational references," a Clinton administration said. "They had the rapport of two politicians who understood the reality that each faces at home. Their conversations one on one were fascinating and had a lot of texture. The two hit it off."

But their joint news conference afterward was uncomfortable.

"There was a total lack of deference to the senior partner," an Israeli official acknowledged.

During the visit, which occurred midway through Clinton's re-election campaign, Netanyahu made a point of showing that he had powerful friends among the Republicans who controlled Congress.

As is customary between leaders of the two countries, Netanyahu and Clinton discussed how to avoid actions that might catch the other off guard.

But any such understanding has been shattered.

Among the earliest disruptive episodes was Israel's opening of a tourist tunnel beneath Muslim shrines in Jerusalem in 1996. Palestinians rioted, and soon the confrontation broke into open gun battles between Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers.

After a U.S.-brokered deal in late 1996 over the volatile West Bank city of Hebron, American officials felt optimistic. They expected a series of small deals to boost mutual trust and the Palestinian economy.

A Washington visit by Netanyahu in February 1997 went well. Quickly, however, Israel surprised the White House by starting work on a major Jewish settlement on disputed land in East Jerusalem.

Relations declined further after Israel announced a withdrawal from West Bank territory that was far smaller than the Palestinians were prepared to accept.

For his part, Arafat soon infuri- ated Israelis by releasing prisoners belonging to Hamas, the militant Islamist group opposed to peace with Israel.

Through this action, Netanyahu asserted, the Palestinian leader had given a "green light" to terror. Days later, a suicide bomber killed four people in Tel Aviv.

This bombing and subsequent violence pulled the United States deeper into mediation and drew Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright to the region for the first time. Her peace-making efforts failed to make much headway.

In September, she called for a "timeout" on provocative acts, such as the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied lands. Soon afterward, the Israeli government announced that it was expanding one settlement by 300 units.

The most recent surprise came this week, in seeming answer to American demands for a "significant and credible" partial withdrawal from the West Bank: Israel's Cabinet staked a claim to much of the West Bank and left the Palestinians without contiguous territory.

American officials said they had not been consulted beforehand and, had they known, would have opposed this action.

The two leaders have spoken by phone about four times over the past six months, an official said. Using first names, "Each says what's on his mind," the official said.

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