Clinton defends his refusal to meet with Netanyahu

WASHINGTON — President Clinton shot back at Israel's prime minister this week for his accusation that the president "humiliated" the entire State of Israel by not meeting with him during a visit last month.

"There can be no serious suggestion that the United States is not interested in the peace process or respectful of the people and government of Israel," Clinton said Tuesday at his end-of-the-year news conference when asked to respond to Benjamin Netanyahu's comments.

After visiting the United States and failing to receive an audience with the president, Netanyahu publicly accused Clinton of engaging in "unbecoming" conduct.

Clinton vigorously defended his decision not to meet with Netanyahu, citing a series of previous meetings with the premier.

"I don't believe I have ever met with any other world leader five times within an 18-month period," Clinton said this week.

Clinton said he plans to invite Netanyahu to Washington next month for a substantive meeting on the peace process.

"I think it is important when the president meets on the peace process that it be a real meeting and that there be some understanding of where we are and where we're going and what we're doing together," Clinton said.

He said he was "not suggesting that there is some standard that the government or the prime minister has to meet in order to have a meeting."

The latest public exchange between the two heads of state comes as the United States is stepping up pressure on Israel to move forward with a "credible" proposal for a further withdrawal from the West Bank.

Netanyahu was expected to present U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright with a proposal in Paris yesterday, but disagreements with cabinet ministers hindered his efforts. Instead of developing any concrete mapped-out arrangements, the premiere was only expected to be able to discuss Israel's interests in the permanent accord, outlining them on the existing Oslo interim agreement map.

Aides to Netanyahu s also said that he would not go into specifics with Albright on the scope of an Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank.

Foreign Minister David Levy, who warned that Netanyahu could not go empty-handed to the meeting with Albright, canceled plans to accompany the prime minister on the trip.

After her talks with Netanyahu in Paris, Albright was slated to travel to London to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Clinton's comments, meanwhile, came in the same week that he promised American Jewish leaders that he would continue to facilitate Israeli-Arab peace talks that enhance Israeli security.

Clinton, in a return letter to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, agreed that the United States and Israel should try to resolve their differences privately.

Meanwhile, an Israeli Cabinet minister lashed out at the Clinton administration during a speech to the Conference of Presidents on Tuesday.

Limor Livnat, minister of communications, criticized the administration for failing to demand Palestinian compliance with the terms of the Oslo accords, as the administration had promised in assurances to the Israelis as part of January's Hebron agreement.