News Analysis: U.S.-Israel summit tensions may benefit Palestinians

WASHINGTON — The United States and Israel will always be close allies, but a new friend is moving in on the jealously guarded turf.

By all accounts, Yasser Arafat put in a masterful performance at last week's Middle East peace summit, bringing the United States closer than ever to the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinian leader's success largely came at the expense of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who regularly sparred with his American hosts during the nine days of torturous talks that led to the agreement signed last Friday at the White House.

Exactly how Clinton's warming relationship with Arafat will affect future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations remains unknown. Indeed, as soon as the summit ended, American and Israeli officials sought to downplay the tensions between Clinton and Netanyahu that leaked out from the summit site, the Wye Plantation in Maryland.

But with the United States, especially the CIA, taking on a critical role in the accord's implementation, many pro-Israel activists fear that lingering strains in the U.S.-Israel relationship could spell trouble down the line for the Jewish state.

Highlighting the American role, the Wye Memorandum mentions the United States 13 times. That's more than all the other Israeli-Arab peace agreements combined, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

U.S.-monitored compliance issues are almost certain to become politicized, Middle East analysts say, if the United States and Israel disagree about Palestinian actions. As a result, the good will banked by Arafat during the summit could prove invaluable.

According to sources who witnessed one of the tense U.S.-Israeli exchanges at Wye, Arafat watched silently as Clinton reprimanded Netanyahu as "ridiculous" for engaging in "despicable" negotiating tactics and for the way he treated the Palestinian Authority chairman.

When Netanyahu enraged the Americans by issuing an empty threat to bolt the talks midweek, Arafat took the high road and sent him a birthday arrangement of flowers.

The most heated battle came after Clinton believed that the accord had been wrapped up and the White House and State Department spokesmen had announced an accord.

Netanyahu believed that Clinton had promised to immediately free Jonathan Pollard. The impasse lasted almost five hours until both compromised. Clinton agreed to study the request and Netanyahu agreed to sign the accord.

As part of the agreement, Clinton will travel in December to Gaza to help Arafat win the backing of the Palestine National Council in their vote to complete the revision of their charter which calls for Israel's destruction.

The president's visit could very well open the way for a parade of foreign leaders to Palestinian-ruled territory.

Clinton's visit "will have huge ramifications for the Palestinian national movement," said Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

His speech "will be the ultimate symbolic end to the American position that the PLO is a terrorist organization," Satloff said.

Provisions of American law that consider Arafat a terrorist have been waived since 1993 in the interest of national security.

And earlier this year Clinton made remarks that were seen as comparing Arafat to South Africa's most famous freedom fighter and current president Nelson Mandela.

When introducing Arafat at last Friday's signing ceremony, Clinton said, "I thank you for decades and decades and decades of tireless representation of the longing of the Palestinian people to be free, self-sufficient, and at home."

Those decades included armed struggle and terrorist attacks against Jewish and Israeli targets. Netanyahu, who at times dozed off during the ceremony after 72 hours of little or no sleep, appeared to perk up at Clinton's comments.

But Clinton also had some praise for Netanyahu.

"I think Mr. Netanyahu has gotten some unfair criticism in this country for being too tough in negotiations," Clinton said last weekend.

"He has to bear the consequences of the commitment that he has made. He's got a hill to climb to sell it to the people that are part of his coalition."

Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, who as a constant participant in the talks had to deal with the fallout from the battles, said after the talks, "I came away with a little more respect and admiration for Bibi Netanyahu."

Fallout from the Pollard episode remains unknown.

But for Clinton, "I doubt very much that there will be lasting residue," Satloff said.

"When Clinton and Netanyahu look at each other, they both look at remarkably gifted politicians in all sense of that word, which means you go for everything you can get until you find out that you can't get it."

Early this week the State Department moved to quash talk of a U.S.-Israel split.

Netanyahu has "shown the courage and the skill and the effectiveness to put forward an agreement," said James Rubin, State Department spokesman.

A meeting scheduled for next week between Albright and Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon could shed some light on how U.S.-Israel relations were affected by the summit.

Clinton committed himself to ask Congress for additional foreign aid to compensate Israel for expenses incurred from its redeployment and for Palestinian economic development. Sharon and Albright are scheduled to meet to discuss an Israeli request, which could be up to $1 billion.

Underscoring the importance of moving past any bad feeling from the summit, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said in a statement released after the signing ceremony: "Continued close U.S.-Israel cooperation will be essential in implementing these accords and preparing for the even more challenging final-status discussions."