Clinton-Netanyahu meeting, like peace talks, is chancy

WASHINGTON — When Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister of Israel last year, a discouraged President Clinton told his close advisers and some friends in the Jewish community that Israel's relations with the United States are bigger than one man.

It's a line that Clinton is said to have repeated in recent weeks as he has locked horns with Netanyahu over the future of Middle East peace talks.

Clinton had worried that the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords he had signed would unravel under a Likud administration.

Whether those accords are salvageable was the subject of much debate as the Israelis and Palestinians met here this week in the latest effort to revive the moribund peace process.

Furthermore, the success or failure of the latest attempt to move the Israelis and Palestinians forward could determine whether Clinton meets Netanyahu when he visits the United States this month.

In what has become a favorite parlor game, pro-Israel activists in Washington are wondering whether Clinton will take the unusual step of not agreeing to see a visiting Israeli premier.

Netanyahu has committed himself to address the annual gathering of the Council of Jewish Federations, meeting in Indianapolis, on Nov. 16.

He is also scheduled to be in Los Angeles on Nov. 17 and 18.

Citing Netanyahu's busy schedule, Israeli officials have said publicly that there are no plans for a White House visit.

Clinton already has scheduled for that week a trip to California as well as talks with two other visiting heads of state.

The difficulty of scheduling a Netanyahu meeting is compounded by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's plan to lead the U.S. delegation to Doha, Qatar, for the Middle East economic summit slated for the same week.

But as an Israeli official said, "We know that if the president wants to meet with the prime minister, he will find time for a meeting."

While some Israeli officials hold out hope that Clinton will see Netanyahu when their travel plans coincide in California, the arrangement would be highly unusual.

In Clinton's six years in office he has only met one leader — the pope — in the United States outside of Washington or the United Nations.

The real question is whether Clinton wants such a meeting or whether he believes it would send the wrong signal.

While the White House publicly says there is no problem between Clinton and Netanyahu, an official said last week, "The president does not want to meet with the prime minister just for the sake of meeting with the prime minister."

Much could depend on what happens during this week's talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

Those talks are being held across the Potomac River, away from the media, at the Foreign Service Institute, in Arlington, Va.

After a rocky start Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and his 13-member delegation sat down Tuesday with the Palestinians to negotiate issues on a U.S.-sponsored, four-part agenda.

The issues include a "timeout" on Israeli settlement construction, security issues, accelerating the permanent-status talks, and outstanding interim issues. The interim issues include further redeployment in the West Bank, as well as the creation of a Palestinian airport and seaport and safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

When asked on PBS' "News Hour with Jim Lehrer" this week about tension with the Clinton administration, Netanyahu said, "We can and we do have occasional disagreements, as have most Israeli governments in the last 30 years on specific issues."

Netanyahu said both Israel and America have an "abiding interest to achieve peace here, to fight terrorism, to achieve regional stability, and I think we see eye to eye on all those things."

Pro-Israel activists say that even though Clinton and Netanyahu are going through a rough stage, the fundamentals of the relationship remain intact.

U.S. officials pointed to the warm reception that Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai received this week from Albright and Defense Secretary William Cohen as proof that relations with the Jewish state are solid.

In fact, Cohen announced that he would travel to Israel in December.

Whether Netanyahu will have met with Cohen's boss by then remains to be seen.