While officially neutral, U.S. is hinting it hopes Barak will win in Israel

Clinton's saying little, but message seems clear


LOS ANGELES -- The Clinton administration has maintained a studied public neutrality in the Israeli campaign for prime minister. But it has made little effort to conceal its interest in a victory for Ehud Barak, the Labor Party candidate.

Burned by his all-but-open endorsement of Shimon Peres, the Labor candidate in the 1996 Israeli election, President Clinton has said nothing in public about the contest between the incumbent prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, and his chief challenger, Barak.

But there is scant doubt in Washington or in Israel about Clinton's preference.

"Officially," one senior White House official said, "our position is that Israel is a sovereign country, we don't meddle in its internal affairs, blah, blah, blah. We're not messing around -- not that I'm aware of. But we're not completely dispassionate, I won't kid you."

As the election turned into a two-way race during the weekend, Clinton's advisers were increasingly optimistic that Labor's candidate would prevail.

"There's no doubt now that it will be decided tomorrow and little doubt about the outcome," a senior Clinton administration official said yesterday.

He sounded pleased at the thought that Barak might win outright, without the need for a runoff in two weeks.

There seems to be no affection between Clinton and Netanyahu, who won three years ago despite -- perhaps in part because of -- Clinton's tilt toward Peres. The Labor candidate was the political heir of the slain Yitzhak Rabin, whom Clinton idolized.

Clinton appeared with Peres in Israel and the United States during the campaign and repeated Labor Party electoral slogans almost verbatim, an act of interference that offended many Israelis.

So this spring, the White House has given no obvious signal of its desire for victory by Barak, who is seen in Washington as more likely than Netanyahu to reach accommodation with the Palestinians. That goal is much desired by the Clinton administration.

The signs of Clinton's pro-Barak leanings are subtle but unmistakable. The president has held several well-publicized meetings with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, over the past five months, designed to underscore the White House commitment to rapid progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

An administration official said moderate voters in Israel are worried about relations between the United States and Israel, which have deteriorated during Netanyahu's tenure.

He said the Clinton administration has been sending signals to those voters that things would improve if Barak were elected. "Dropping obvious hints has clearly had an impact in Israel, and the polling shows that," the official said.

Clinton sent a letter to Arafat last month containing the U.S. government's strongest endorsement yet of an eventual Palestinian state on land once occupied by Israel. He urged quick resumption of stalled peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, a course that Netanyahu has resisted.

The goal, administration officials said, is to strengthen Arafat in his struggle against Palestinian extremists and to position him for the restart of negotiations with what the White House hopes is a new government in Jerusalem.

The administration has often expressed frustration with Netanyahu's slow approach to carrying out agreements reached in October at Wye Plantation in Maryland under Clinton's direction.

Pub Date: 5/17/99

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