Netanyahu lauds U.S. despite disagreements

WASHINGTON — Striking an emotional and fiery tone, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ended his U.S. visit this week with a call to pro-Israel activists to support his brand of peace with security.

But Netanyahu, in a Sunday evening speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and in numerous other public appearances during his five-day visit, went out of his way to praise the United States in spite of disagreements regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

"President Clinton is a friend of Israel, make no mistake about it," he said.

The tone was very different from the defiant one that many expected from the prime minister, whose visit came against the backdrop of tensions between Israel and the United States.

The Clinton administration has been pressing Israel to accept a U.S. plan to restart the long-stagnant Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The U.S. proposal calls on Israel to withdraw from a further 13 percent of the West Bank in exchange for a series of Palestinian steps to crack down on terrorism.

Acceptance of the proposal would then open the way for the two sides to begin final-status talks, which would address the issues of borders, refugees, settlements and Jerusalem.

But even as he called the president a friend, Netanyahu not so subtly reminded the president that he believes that Israel must determine its security interests.

"All successive American administrations have agreed with us that it is Israel and Israel alone that must determine its security needs, and Israel and Israel alone that must determine its redeployment," he said.

Continuing efforts by U.S. officials to bridge the gap produced no reported progress. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright concluded a series of meetings with the Israeli premier last week without any signs that the two sides had bridged the gaps.

Albright then summoned Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to brief him in London on Monday on the latest developments, apparently without any progress.

"I cannot say that we have a breakthrough," State Department spokesman James Rubin said in London after Monday's meeting. "On the contrary, we are working very hard to overcome differences."

One day later, Rubin adopted a more pessimistic tone, saying the day is "not far off" when the United States will have to admit that it was unable to restart the Middle East peace process. Rubin added that no talks were currently scheduled with Israeli or Palestinian leaders and that Middle East envoy Dennis Ross had no immediate plans to return to the region.

Meanwhile, upon his return to Israel on Monday, Netanyahu denied an Israel Radio report that he had accepted the U.S. proposal.

Also, reports this week that Arafat had backed off his threat to declare a Palestinian state in May of 1999 — a thorn in the side of the negotiations — failed to change the prevailing downcast mood.

In what evolved as a stump speech during his visit, Netanyahu stressed repeatedly that Israel could not agree to the U.S. proposal because of security considerations.

Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Wednesday that he had asked the United States for $1 billion in assistance to help cover the costs of a further redeployment in the West Bank if and when an agreement is reached for a pullback. Israel Television reported that the money would be used to build bypass roads and dismantle army bases.

In several appearances, including a news conference in New York on Sunday prior to leading the city's "Salute to Israel Parade," Netanyahu said the concerns for security were based on what would happen to early warning stations, Israel's water supply and approaches to Israel's airports.

The prime minister also said the safety of Israeli schoolchildren traveling on West Bank roads would be jeopardized by a 13 percent withdrawal.

"These are not abstract or tactical or stratagems that we use in order to build up some number," Netanyahu told some 2,000 cheering AIPAC delegates. "It is a real consideration for real security."

The AIPAC delegates showered Netanyahu with almost two minutes of cheers and shouts of support as he took the podium. That reception stood in marked contrast to the one he received at an American Jewish Committee gathering here last week, when activists offered Netanyahu a polite but not enthusiastic reception.