News Analysis: Netanyahu — unbending or flexible Take your pick

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JERUSALEM — Israel's new government has plunged into Middle East diplomacy, pledging to the United States that it seeks to reopen negotiations with all its Arab partners, including the Palestinian Authority.

But after meeting here with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to set a date for a meeting between himself and Yasser Arafat, the authority's leader.

The meeting with Christopher came on the heels of a major Arab summit that had generated widespread international concern about the future of the peace process.

A full month after Netanyahu's election, the direction of the new government regarding the peace process remain unclear.

One school of thought saw the new prime minister as more pragmatic than his hardheaded campaign rhetoric indicated.

The other view, taking the government's tough policy guidelines on the peace process at face value, forecast a period of increased tension with Israel's closest ally, the United States.

The pragmatic school of thought on Netanyahu predicted some hard but productive bargaining in the Oval Office next month. Many believe Netanyahu has resolved to honor Israel's commitment, negotiated by the Peres government, to redeploy forces from most of Hebron.

The pragmatists also believed negotiations would reopen soon with the Palestinian Authority on the permanent status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Those talks, which would deal with Jerusalem, the Palestinian entity, Israeli settlements and refugees, were formally launched in early May.

In contrast, however, some pundits saw signs the new Israeli government's tougher policies on the peace process — opposition to a Palestinian state, to an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and to redividing Jerusalem — could lead to less harmonious U.S.-Israeli relations.

And Ehud Barak, former Labor Party foreign minister, spoke of "a journey back into the past," referring to the confrontational period in the early 1990s between Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and U.S. President Bush.

As a further sign of the uncertainty of the new government, Netanyahu sparred indirectly with his new foreign minister over the future of the Golan.

David Levy sounded a conciliatory note in a weekend television interview that Israel could show some flexibility on the Golan in talks with Syria. But Netanyahu's spokesman quickly sought to distance the prime minister from Levy's remarks, saying that only statements made by the prime minister reflect Israeli policy.

Although both Netanyahu and Christopher spoke to reporters in fairly upbeat tones after their 90-minute session Tuesday, informed sources admitted their meeting had not been all that smooth.

Netanyahu reportedly underscored Israel's concerns about Syria's ongoing support for terrorist organizations, and the need for the Palestinian Authority to clamp down on terrorists before Israel withdraws from more territory.

"The achievement of peace is contingent on security," Netanyahu said in his public remarks. "Terrorism is incompatible with the advance to peace."

Christopher, in his remarks, pointedly attempted to accommodate Netanyahu's position, noting that "peace without security is not possible."

But he made a point of adding that the opposite is also true.

Netanyahu gave no explicit commitment regarding Israel's redeployment from most of Hebron, saying he was still studying that issue.

Hebron is widely seen as the first test of the new government's commitment to the peace accords with the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Levy hinted he would soon meet the Palestinian leader.

Arafat's aide, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, said the Palestinian Authority heard Israel was preparing a list of alleged Palestinian violations of the Oslo Accords that it would demand be addressed before moving ahead with the peace talks.

However, Rudeineh said, "if they have 49 objections, then we have 490, but let's sit down and negotiate."

Tuesday's Christopher-Netanyahu talks were intended as a preparatory session for Netanyahu's visit to Washington, D.C., next month.

Netanyahu's aides indicated the prime minister would be more concrete about the peace process when he meets with President Clinton on July 9.

Christopher's visit this week had been touted as limited to establishing a working relationship with the new Israeli leader, and not intended to explore political positions in depth.

At the same time, Christopher told reporters accompanying him to Israel he hoped Netanyahu would carry out the Hebron redeployment.

At the news conference, he said, "We must build for a better future to preserve and implement the agreements with the Palestinians and with Jordan, and pursue future agreements with Lebanon and Syria."

Christopher later held talks with Peres and Barak, who became opposition leaders after the Labor Party's defeat in the May elections.

In the interim, Palestinians were expressing a growing anxiety over the dearth of contact between their leadership and the new Israeli government.

The senior Palestine Liberation Organization official in Jerusalem, Faisal Husseini, said Tuesday that Netanyahu and Arafat must meet no matter how they may feel about one another personally.

"We are talking about politics. And in politics, you can't decide for the other side about his own leadership," Husseini said.

Netanyahu's foreign policy aide, Dore Gold, and Arafat's deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu-Mazen, have spoken by phone and reportedly met secretly last week. But the diplomatic contact since Netanyahu took office last week remains low-key.

But the Palestinians were bolstered by last weekend's Arab summit in Cairo, convened to consider the Arab world's response to the change of government in Israel.

Palestinian Minister Sa'eb Erakat, in an interview with the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, maintained that the summit had been an important success for peacemaking because for the first time almost all the Arab world had united around the peace process with Israel.

The 21 Arab leaders attending the summit — only Iraq was not invited — joined in a closing statement that warned Israel not to deviate from the land-for-peace principle that was the basis for the 1991 peace conference in Madrid.

On the Israeli side, both Netanyahu and Levy warned against setting preconditions on the road to resumed negotiations. But privately, Israeli officials indicated that the Cairo summit had passed off more moderately than they had feared.

Intensive diplomatic efforts by the United States and Egypt had resulted in the watering down of draft resolutions submitted by Syria. Those resolutions wanted Arab states to cease their normalization with Israel.

In the end, that sanction was hinted at only indirectly, as a measure to which the Arabs could revert if the peace process failed to get back on track.

The summit's closing statement warned that a hard-line approach by the new Israeli government would be countered by a slowdown in the normalization of ties with Arab countries.

Back at home, Netanyahu's diplomatic prowess was being tested as he sought to overcome obstacles to bringing Likud hard-line veteran Ariel Sharon into his Cabinet.

The new Ministry of National Infrastructure planned for Sharon would include power over roads, railways, electricity and the politically and economically important Israel Lands Authority, which oversees the West Bank and Gaza, as well as defense industries.

Other ministers, who would be required to transfer authority over these areas, have been reluctant to relinquish jurisdiction.

The minister of justice, Ya'acov Ne'eman, was shuttling between Sharon, Netanyahu and the aggrieved ministers midweek in an effort to assuage everyone.

Considering all the crises he's facing already, it's no surprise that Netanyahu has not revealed exactly where he's heading.