News Analysis: Peres gets more from U.S. than expected

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In addition to being crowned as a statesman and peacemaker by President Bill Clinton, Peres departed with new tools to fight terrorism, the promise of a first formal strategic agreement with the United States, and reassurances to safeguard Israel's forces in Lebanon.

The visit marked a triumphant return for Peres to the United States just days after concluding a two-week war in Lebanon that had marked his government's first international crisis.

It came as Peres is approaching the final weeks of a heated reelection campaign for prime minister.

Although it is unclear just how his Washington visit will play — if at all — among Israeli voters when they go to the polls Wednesday, May 29, he clearly was returning with a full basket.

The prime minister began his three-day visit here Sunday by signing an agreement that will bolster Israel's ability to defend itself against missile attacks.

He concluded the trip to Washington by signing another cooperative agreement, that one to combat terrorism.

He also received letters from U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher that further clarified last week's cease-fire agreement in Lebanon.

One of the letters — called side agreements to the deal brokered among Israel, Syria and Lebanon — recognizes Israel's right to strike back against attacks on its forces in the southern Lebanon security zone.

"The U.S. understands that if Hezbollah or any other organization" launches attacks "on Israeli forces in Lebanon," Israel retains the right to retaliate, the addendum stated. The original cease-fire, which prevented attacks on civilians in Israel and Lebanon, did not address an attack in Lebanon on the Israel Defense Force.

Peres read the letter to reporters Tuesday afternoon after meetings with Clinton and Christopher.

Another side agreement further restricts Hezbollah from using civilian areas to store or make weapons for attacks on Israel. Last week's cease-fire agreement only banned the launching of attacks from civilian areas.

Peres and Clinton also launched a committee to craft the first formal U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation agreement.

One working group of the steering committee will formalize security and defense cooperation between the United States and Israel. Another working group will discuss broad policy matters affecting the strategic cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem.

Peres and Clinton "welcomed the decision by the Palestinian National Council to cancel all the provisions of the Palestinian National Covenant which deny Israel's right to exist," according to a joint statement released after their White House meeting.

They also reiterated their goal to "eliminate discrimination against Israel in all international organizations, including the United Nations."

Peres timed his visit to coincide with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference. The plenary session's Sunday night opening honored Clinton and Peres in a "Salute to the Peacemakers."

At that gathering, Clinton and Peres heaped words of praise and warmth on each other and pledged to pursue peace vigorously in the Middle East.

At a Pentagon news conference Sunday after meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, Peres said, "Let's face it, fighting terror is enabling the peace process to go ahead."

He added, "It's two sides of the same coin."

Perry and Peres, who also carries the title of defense minister, announced a cooperative program that will provide Israel with virtually immediate warning of any missile firings.

Peres and Clinton signed the terrorism accord Tuesday at the White House.

The measure will:

*Expand the sharing of intelligence.

*Exchange counterterrorism experts.

*Provide for the extradition of known terrorists.

*Enable the sharing of technology such as satellite photographs to combat terrorism.

*Establish a joint committee on counterterrorism.

Clinton hailed the agreement as a way to "strengthen our partnership to stop the enemies of peace."

After the signing ceremony, Clinton asked Peres to teach him how to write his name in Hebrew.

Peres responded, "It's easy." The Israeli prime minister then took out a piece of paper and wrote "Bill" in Hebrew. Clinton copied it below.

Peres also briefly met Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat before leaving Washington Tuesday night.

Arafat's visit to Washington was hastily arranged after the Palestine National Council voted last week to amend its covenant, parts of which call for the destruction of Israel.

Clinton then met with Arafat on Wednesday morning in the Oval Office. The meeting marked the first time Clinton met the Palestinian leader outside the framework of a peace-signing ceremony.

The meeting was seen as a gesture to Arafat after last week's decision by the Palestine National Council to revoke the sections of its covenant that call for Israel's destruction. It also marked a step forward for Arafat in the road to being seen as a statesman.

Clinton specifically commended Arafat for keeping his commitment to drop the anti-Israel parts of the Palestinian charter.

According to Perry, a U.S. team is slated to head to Israel next week — as part of the new military agreements with Israel — to continue work on the U.S.-Israeli Arrow air-defense missile and the U.S. Nautilus laser-defense system, which is still in the development stage.

The Arrow system is designed to intercept long-range ballistic missiles. The Nautilus project takes aim at shorter-range missiles, such as the Katyusha rockets fired at northern Israel by Hezbollah gunmen in Lebanon.

In addition, the team will look at ways of providing Israel with an interim defense against Katyusha rockets until the Nautilus system is ready.

A barrage of such rockets this month injured more than 100 Israelis in northern Israel and set off a massive retaliation by Israel, "Operation Grapes of Wrath."

Such a system of defense "should reduce any incentive for any country to launch a missile" against Israel "because they would see it would be ineffective," Perry told reporters.

The agreement reaffirms U.S. support for Israel's efforts to develop a defense against ballistic missiles such as the Scuds that Iraq fired on Israel during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Under the agreement, the U.S. military would share with Israel "real-time" missile launch warnings available from spy satellites.

Perry said a prototype of the Nautilus anti-rocket laser weapon, which fires a high-energy beam of light to burn up rockets in flight, should be available for testing in Israel by the end of next year.

In remarks he repeated throughout his visit, Peres said, "The relations between the United States and Israel are at their best, and the cooperation between the defense establishments of the States and Israel [is] as good as one can hope for or think of."

The United States, Perry added, is "committed to maintaining the qualitative edge of the Israeli defense forces."

Peres' visit to Washington did more than expand U.S.-Israeli military cooperation. It also served as a backdrop for Clinton and Peres to gain some pre-election political points.

At the AIPAC session, Clinton used the occasion to rally behind Peres, calling him "our full partner for peace and security."

Peres, in turn, lavished praise on Clinton, calling him a "great leader of the free world."

Peres used his remarks to drive home and enlist support from the AIPAC delegates for his vision of a peaceful Middle East.

Responding to delegates who lobbied last year for a bill recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and requiring the United States to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Peres said, "Jerusalem will remain united and the capital of Israel."

In New York, Peres reaffirmed that commitment to Jewish leaders.

"I'm very much surprised people are spreading doubts when there is no room for such doubts" about Jerusalem's future, Peres said at an appearance Monday at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

When challenged that the Labor Party has reversed previous party platform positions, he said negotiations require a search for "creative propositions" and are not about searching the "file for an old plan."

"If you want to make peace with yourself, it's OK, keep your platform," he said.

The necessary "creativity" of negotiations is what has prompted his call for a public referendum on any final-status plan with the Palestinians, he said.

Back in Israel, Peres's opponent, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, blasted the prime minister for "cynically exploiting" U.S. ties to win the election.

"It's simply a stupefying thing and comical," Reuters quoted Netanyahu as saying. "There's also something pathetic about it, I must say."

Netanyahu trails Peres by five points in the latest pre-election polls, Reuters reported.

Meanwhile, Peres responded to a question about the planned redeployment of Israeli troops in Hebron by pledging to keep the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Israeli hands and the roughly 450 Jews in Hebron under Israeli protection.

But, "to run the lives" of the 160,000 Arabs in Hebron is not in Israel's interest, he said.

Peres said the "dates and procedures" of the redeployment had not been finalized but that the commitment to redeploy would be honored.