News Analysis: Israelis are quietly awaiting Clinton-Netanyahu meeting

JERUSALEM — An air of expectation pervaded Israel this week as both the government and opposition looked to the prime minister's scheduled meeting with President Clinton in Washington on Tuesday, Jan. 20 as the key to future developments in both the domestic and international arenas.

Not even a tied Knesset vote on a no-confidence motion Monday nor a series of tough decisions on the peace process by the Cabinet on Tuesday seemed to disturb the tranquil atmosphere — which many observers discerned to be an eerie quiet before a likely storm.

The questions on everyone's lips in the political community were: Will Clinton crack the whip at last, demanding from Israel a "further redeployment" on the West Bank of the "substantial and credible dimensions"?

If he does, will the hard-liners balk and threaten Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition, now reduced to a majority of one after the secession of former Foreign Minister David Levy's five-seat Gesher Party?

If it does, will Labor step into the breach and provide Netanyahu with the votes he needs in the Knesset to pass a meaningful redeployment?

If it does, will Netanyahu take up the Labor offer of parliamentary aid — or does he, too, prefer to fall rather than cede a "double-digit" swath of the biblical Land of Israel to the Palestinian Authority?

Having weathered the budget vote and Levy's walkout, Netanyahu is bracing himself not only for some hard talk in the White House, but also for what may be the biggest domestic crisis of his 19-month premiership.

Netanyahu's one hope is that Clinton, too, is aware of his predicament, and therefore will go easy on him, since in the final analysis Washington would like to see a right-wing Israeli government cede land, even modest tracts of land, to the Palestinians and thereby embrace at least the principle of "land-for-peace."

Clinton is scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat two days after Netanyahu, who also is expected to meet with members of Congress and American Jewish leaders during his three-day visit.

Although Clinton has not insisted that the Israeli leader bring with him a detailed redeployment proposal, he plainly intends to be in a position — at the end of his talks with Netanyahu — to be able to convey to Arafat whether, in his view, a deal is feasible.

He will demand enhanced efforts from the Palestinian leader to root out terrorism. For his part, Arafat can point to Israeli headlines this week reporting massive arrests of Hamas militants that resulted from close collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian security services. These seem to demonstrate that security cooperation is working, at least to some degree.

The Israeli Cabinet, meeting almost daily this week to prepare for Netanyahu's mission, voted unanimously Tuesday to demand full implementation by the Palestinians of their unfulfilled obligations under prior agreements before Israel goes ahead with a redeployment.

Netanyahu denied that Israel was presenting the Palestinian Authority with an ultimatum for progress in peace negotiations. But the language of the Cabinet decision — and the hard-line ministers' support for it — seemed to indicate that it was an ultimatum.

The premier said he wants the Palestinians to revoke the Palestine National Covenant — which the Palestinians insist was effectively revoked in 1996. Both the Palestinians and the Labor opposition branded the Cabinet decision an obvious ploy to gain time and avoid withdrawing from more of the West Bank.

On Wednesday, the Cabinet decided that in a final-status agreement with the Palestinians Israel would retain control over "vital and national interests" in the West Bank. These include security zones along the eastern and western borders of the West Bank; buffer areas around Jerusalem and Jewish settlements; water, electricity and transportation sources; and historic sites sacred to the Jewish people.

The Cabinet last month had approved, in principle, a redeployment, but also said that no decision on the scope of a pullback would be made before acting on the guidelines for a final-status accord.

But it appeared this week that the ministers might not agree on the amount of territory to transfer to the Palestinians before Netanyahu's meeting with Clinton.

The Clinton administration, meanwhile, was quietly making its own preparations — and drawing preliminary conclusions — for next week's talks in Washington. A trip to the region last week by U.S. special Middle East coordinator Dennis Ross produced little progress and, reportedly, little grounds for optimism — and Ross is considered the staunchest advocate among top U.S. officials of the thesis that Netanyahu can deliver on the peace process.

In her year-end policy address Tuesday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright expressed regret over the lack of progress in the peace progress.

Others in the White House and the State Department were said to have all but written off any realistic hope of concluding a redeployment deal as long as the Netanyahu government remains in power.

But the Clinton administration will also be considering other important Middle East developments as it decides on the posture it will adopt in the talks with Netanyahu and Arafat:

*U.S.-Iraqi tensions are rising again following Baghdad's decision this week to bar a U.N. inspection team because of its American members. Military action by the United States alone, or in concert with some of its 1991 Gulf war allies, has not been ruled out. Clinton does not need tension with the Arab states over the peace process in advance of such a decision.

*A U.S. dialogue with Iran could be opening up following Iranian President Mohammed Khatami's CNN interview, in which he softened his rhetoric against the United States. Still, the Clinton administration clearly will not weaken its ties with Israel to pander to Tehran; again, it does not need to court tensions with the Arab world over Palestinians just as this dialogue begins to evolve.