News Analysis: Netanyahu likely to cave in on U.S. demands, aides say

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be ready to make significant compromises next week at peace talks in Washington.

Building on the slight momentum established at this week's London talks and buoyed by the prospect of opening final-status negotiations — something Netanyahu has long coveted — the premier is ready to show flexibility in his stance, Israeli officials said.

Those officials predicted that Netanyahu will come to Washington and accept the American proposals in some form even though he has from the start staunchly opposed the plan under which Israel would redeploy from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank.

The redeployment would be in exchange for specific Palestinian steps to live up to their part of already-signed agreements.

"In some form" will likely mean that Israel will present some modifications to the American plan — but just the same, the officials are confident that there will be an agreement soon.

Indeed, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright herself hinted of flexibility on the part of the Israeli government when she told a news conference just before leaving London on Tuesday afternoon that Netanyahu had been "helpful and constructive in his thinking across a whole range of issues."

Of course, even as Israeli officials were speaking with optimism, Netanyahu himself was returning to his typical rhetoric.

In an interview on Israel's Army Radio Wednesday, the prime minister stated that he might not go to the United States after all.

"Am I obligated to accept every invitation on any condition?" Netanyahu said, according to a Reuters report.

"I am ready to go, that's not the problem," he continued. "But if they tell me I have to go and accept certain conditions that are unacceptable to us — we are a sovereign country."

Netanyahu later told his Cabinet ministers he would refuse to accept American dictates on the amount of land to be transferred to Palestinian self-rule. The Cabinet is expected to make a final decision on the American proposal Sunday.

Observers, however, said that Netanyahu was making such comments simply to placate his constituency. The prime minister, they insisted, was ready to make compromises.

Much of the change in attitude was an outgrowth of this week's London conference. Even though no agreement was reached there,neither had talks broken down.

"Significant differences remain," said one Israeli official, "but although the gaps have not been bridged, we will continue. The procedures are still intact and the contacts will go on."

The talks involved a dizzying bout of separate meetings at three central London hotels involving Albright, Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

And when those sessions were over, Albright invited the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to come to Washington next week — if they could reach an agreement for advancing the peace process before then.

If Netanyahu accepts the invitation to the White House — Arafat did immediately — there will be a three-way meeting Monday between President Clinton, Netanyahu and Arafat.

The encouraging signs from London this week are that, whatever intermediate hurdles must be overcome, Israeli and Palestinian leaders appear to regard the success of the process as vital to their personal and national interests.

Netanyahu might well feel constrained by right-wing elements in his Cabinet, however. Indeed, he told Albright that he did not have that body's authorization to make a final decision in London.

But just the same, he is a consummate political operator who keeps one eye on winning the next election and the other on the polls — which consistently show that the overwhelming majority of Israelis support progress in the peace process.

Netanyahu, who successfully ran on a platform of "Peace With Security" in 1996, is likely to win a second term in 2000 if he can deliver on his cautiously pragmatic approach.

A breakdown in the peace process is not in his interests, nor in those of Arafat, who, confronted by a burgeoning challenge from Islamic militants, faces potentially perilous domestic questions about his credibility.

Despite the lack of tangible progress in London, both leaders will need to show some progress — and soon.

While Netanyahu's longer-term strategic interest may be focused on winning the next election, Arafat wants to realize his dream of declaring an independent Palestinian state on May 4, 1999, the scheduled date for the conclusion of the final-status talks.

That dream has complicated already-difficult negotiations: Arafat's repeated assertion that he will declare an independent state next May with or without a final-status agreement has made Netanyahu particularly distrustful.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, does not trust Arafat to deliver on the security agreements to which he is already committed.

And now, confronted with the issue of further redeployments from the West Bank, he is reluctant to take a step that will help the Palestinian leader make a unilateral declaration of independence.

As Netanyahu flew back to Jerusalem, he might have reflected that the London meetings represented a net gain.

For the talks to proceed, he will have to come up with something akin to the 13 percent further redeployment envisioned in the U.S. proposal.

But, Israeli sources said, he used the London meetings to nail down a watertight, verifiable timetable of Palestinian compliance on security matters.

His initial five-hour meeting with Albright on Monday did indeed focus on the core issue of redeployment, the sources said. But more important from his perspective, he had the opportunity to attempt to change the terms of the debate by proposing what they called a "new conceptual framework" for negotiations.

The question of redeployment would continue to be a feature of the talks, the sources said. But in the new script, it would no longer attract top billing. Rather, redeployment would be just one item on what a senior Israeli government official described as a "comprehensive menu of negotiating topics."

Redeployment would be locked into a slew of other issues, which include the Palestinian Authority's amending the Palestinian Covenant, extraditing terrorist suspects to Israel, confiscating unauthorized weapons and destroying the terrorist infrastructures of Islamic radicals in the self-rule areas.

The new concept would have the effect of diluting the territorial dimension of the negotiations, increasing the focus on security issues and reducing what the Israeli officials perceive as "the unequal pressure on Israel."

Israeli officials complain that while they are negotiating on the basis of the land-for-peace formula, the reality is that almost all the attention is on the land that Israel would hand over, with comparatively little attention on the peace that the Palestinians offer in return.

As a result, a senior Israeli official said, Netanyahu offered a proposal to make each of the Palestinian steps as concrete and tangible as the land Israel would transfer.

The official added that Albright found enough merit in Netanyahu's proposal to carry it directly to Arafat.

The talks extended one day beyond the intended timetable, and U.S. State Department officials were expected to continue working with the parties through the week.

Thus the London talks, earlier billed as make-or-break by the Palestinians, have instead created a new, albeit tiny, window of opportunity.

And the Israelis, at least, contend they will be coming to Washington.

Only time will tell.