News Analysis — Aftermath of summit: Good will is there

WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's long-sought visit to Washington this week could be headlined "The crisis that wasn't."

Despite predictions the visit would highlight the gap between Israel and the Clinton administration, Netanyahu's own analysis of his meetings was echoed by American officials:

"The good will is there, the pieces are there, we're trying to put them together and we're making a real effort to do so," Netanyahu said after meetings with both President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Tuesday.

With so much at stake, Netanyahu had crafted his visit to remind Clinton that he could bear the wrath of an angry American constituency if the White House was perceived as pressuring Israel.

Significantly, however, he didn't turn primarily to the Jewish community to demonstrate his support as much as to conservative Republican and evangelical Christian leaders.

At the same time, Netanyahu knows he must continue to rely on Clinton to broker agreements with Arafat in the absence of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

In the end, the plan seems to have worked.

Netanyahu pledged time and time again to forge ahead with the peace process, but only if the Palestinians fully comply with their previous accords with Israel. Only then, Netanyahu told his audiences, would he proceed with an overdue redeployment from the West Bank.

But as Netanyahu moved from rallies and meetings into substantive talks, there were indications that progress on the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace front was possible.

As the visit proceeded, furthermore, the premier seemed to soften his stance, according to Israeli and American officials.

And now the task has turned to forging a compromise agreement between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, who was due to meet President Clinton yesterday.

Once in the Oval Office on Tuesday, Clinton tried to pin Netanyahu down on what it would take for Israel to implement the U.S. call for a "credible and substantial" redeployment from more of the West Bank.

Boosting hopes for progress, Clinton scheduled an unplanned second meeting with Netanyahu on Tuesday that lasted until almost midnight.

"We narrowed some of the gaps but we still have a long way to go," Netanyahu said at the National Press Club the morning after the meeting.

The 90-minute second session took place in the president's office upstairs in the White House residence where Clinton keeps a photo of himself with slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as well as the yarmulke he wore to Rabin's funeral on a silver tray that was a gift from Shimon Peres.

In another possible sign of movement, Netanyahu revealed that the United States has asked him to allow the Palestine National Council to convene in the Gaza Strip.

"They wouldn't stay there for very long, but they could convene in Gaza," Netanyahu said he told the Americans.

The purpose of such a gathering presumably would be to change the Palestinian Covenant, which calls for Israel's destruction.

Netanyahu has said he would not proceed with a redeployment unless the Palestinians complete the process of amending the covenant.

However, Clinton told Netanyahu that the United States does not believe that such a step could come before the two sides implement other confidence-building measures, U.S. officials said.

While Netanyahu and Clinton did not produce an agreement, the outlines of a U.S.-proposed package are becoming clearer, according to Israeli and U.S. officials.

James Rubin, State Department spokesman, said the terms and conditions of a further Israeli redeployment were a major focus of Netanyahu's meetings with Clinton and Albright.

While reiterating the U.S. demand for a "credible" and "significant" redeployment, Rubin told reporters there is more at issue than how much land is involved. Also of concern is the quality of the land, the timing of a redeployment and the security situation that evolves. According to the U.S. plan, Israel would turn over at least 12 percent more of the West Bank.

In a new twist, the plan would involve a phased redeployment tied to specific Palestinian fulfillment of its commitments.

If the Palestinians choose to focus on the interim steps instead of moving directly into final-status talks, which Israeli had been advocating, Netanyahu said, "then the issue of Palestinian compliance becomes all-important. And this is where we are right now."

While Netanyahu refused to comment specifically on the size of the redeployments, he said, "of course" we're discussing "how to adjust certain provisions of Palestinian obligations to specific actions on the part of Israel."

A senior Israeli official told reporters that Clinton and Netanyahu moved closer to agreement on that point.

But Netanyahu still has his Cabinet to contend with, and everything discussed here must be approved by his coalition back home. Some members of his coalition have threatened to leave the government if Netanyahu agrees to cede any more land.

From the moment Netanyahu arrived, he tried to surround himself with supporters. In a breach of protocol that was seen as an attempt to send a message to the White House, Netanyahu huddled first with Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Usually visiting leaders first meet with administration officials.

But the Republican leader, usually an outspoken critic of Clinton's policy toward Israel policy, declined to comment on specific issues at hand — at least until after the Clinton-Netanyahu meetings. Then Gingrich launched a barrage of criticism at the White House for its Israel policy.

Netanyahu also held a series of Capitol Hill meetings with prominent Republicans and Democratic lawmakers who returned to Washington for that purpose even though they were still in recess.

After the Gingrich meeting, Netanyahu addressed a rally of primarily conservative Christian supporters and some Jewish ones. The standing-room-only crowd rose to its feet and cheered the Israeli premier in a fashion that was unparalleled in either of his two meetings with the Jewish community.

With American Jews deeply divided on the peace process, Netanyahu had turned to one of the few groups that he knew would give him an enthusiastic welcome.

For their part, speakers at the National Unity Coalition for Israel railed against the transfer of land for peace as a "hoax" and the crowd burst into a chant of "not one inch" after Netanyahu's speech.

The White House saw the rally as an effort by Netanyahu to surround himself with politically important constituencies to insulate himself against public pressure from the president.

The meetings included a session with Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, who announced that he and the Southern Baptist Convention would mobilize evangelical churches to oppose Israel's giving up of any more territory.

Netanyahu's meeting with Falwell, an arch-opponent of Clinton, did not go unnoticed by the president.

"It would be sufficient to say that the prime minister is probably aware of concerns that the president might have on some aspects of that," Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman, said when asked about the sessions.

Prior to Netanyahu's arrival, Clinton sought to reassure American Jews that his support for Israel was still strong. Comments to that effect came out of an Oval Office meeting with the chairman and executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

There's a "growing concern in the American Jewish community that there has been a shifting in attitude towards the peace process," said Melvin Salberg, Conference of Presidents chairman.

"Clinton assured us," he said, that his support for Israel is unshakable and that the special relationship is as strong as ever.

Then, Clinton used a photo opportunity with Israeli journalists to signal his strong support for Israel. "I want to reaffirm to the people of Israel the strong support of the United States for Israel and the strong support of the United States for the security of Israel," Clinton said.

In addition, Clinton backed Netanyahu, saying that "Israel has to make its own decisions about its own security."