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News Analysis: Premier Plunges into Diplomacy but His Direction Not Yet Clear

Israel’s new government has plunged into Middle East diplomacy, pledging to the United States that it seeks to reopen negotiations with all its Arab partners, including the Palestinian Authority.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined this week, after meeting here with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, to set a date for a meeting between himself and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.

The meeting with Christopher came on the heels of a major Arab summit that had generated widespread international concern about the future of the peace process.

It also came as Netanyahu continued to cobble together a meaningful ministerial portfolio for Likud hard-line veteran Ariel Sharon.

A month after Netanyahu’s election, the direction of the new government regarding the peace process remains unclear.

One school of thought sees the new prime minister as more pragmatic than his hardline campaign rhetoric indicated.

The other view, taking the government’s tough policy guidelines on the peace process at face value, forecasts a period of tension with Israel’s closets ally, the United States.

Although both Netanyahu and Christopher spoke to reporters in fairly upbeat tones after their 90-minute session Tuesday, informed sources said their meeting had not been all that smooth.

Netanyahu is understood to have underscored Israel’s concerns about Syria’s ongoing support for terrorist organizations.

“The achievement of peace is contingent on security,” Netanyahu said in his public remarks. “Terrorism is incompatible with the advance to peace.”

Christopher, in his remarks, pointedly attempted to accommodate Netanyahu’s position, noting that “peace without security is not possible.”

But he made a point of adding that the opposite is also true.

Netanyahu gave no explicit commitment regarding Israel’s redeployment from most of Hebron, saying that he was still “studying” that issue.

Hebron is widely seen as the first test of the new government’s commitment to the peace accords with the Palestinians.

To reporters, Netanyahu only restated his willingness “to consider” meeting with Arafat if the security of the Jewish state required it.

But he indicated that low-level contacts with the Palestinians would be stepped up in the coming days.

However, Foreign Minister David Levy hinted that he would soon meet the Palestinian leader.

“We have already said we will speak to the [Palestinian] Authority and will negotiate with them,” Levy told reporters Tuesday after meeting with Christopher.

Asked whether he would meet Arafat, he said, “Do you know of an authority without a leader?”

Tuesday’s talks with the secretary were intended as a preparatory session for Netanyahu’s visit to Washington next month.

Netanyahu’s aides indicated that the prime minister would be more concrete and specific about the peace process when he meets with President Clinton on July 9.

The Christopher visit had been touted as being limited to establishing a working relationship with the new Israeli leader, and not one in which political positions would be covered in depth.

At the same time, Christopher told reporters accompanying him to Israel that he hoped that Netanyahu would carry out the Hebron redeployment.

At the news conference, he said, “We must build for a better future to preserve and implement the agreements with the Palestinians and with Jordan, and pursue future agreements with Lebanon and Syria.”

Christopher later held talks with Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, who became opposition leaders after the Labor Party’s defeat in the May elections.

After talks with President Ezer Weizman, Christopher was scheduled to fly to Cairo on Wednesday to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Arafat.

The pragmatic school of thought on Netanyahu predicts some hard but productive bargaining in the Oval Office next month.

They believe that Netanyahu has resolved to honor Israel’s commitment, negotiated by the former government of Peres, to redeploy its forces from most of Hebron, leaving them in the area of Jewish settlement.

The pragmatists believe that negotiations will reopen soon with the Palestinian Authority on the permanent status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Those talks, which will deal with Jerusalem, the Palestinian entity, Israeli settlements and refugees, were formally launched in early May, but substantive discussions have yet to begin.

In contrast to the pragmatists, other observers here spoke this week of signs that the new Israeli government’s tougher policies on the peace process – opposition to a Palestinian state and to an Israel withdrawal from the Golan Heights – would lead to less harmonious U.S. – Israeli relations.

Barak, the former Labor foreign minister, spoke of “a journey back into the past,” referring to the confrontational period in the early 1990s between Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and U.S. President Bush.

As a further sign of the uncertainty of the new government, Netanyahu sparred indirectly with his minister over the future of the Golan.

Levy sounded a conciliatory note in a weekend television interview that Israel could show some flexibility on the Golan in talks with Syria.

But Netanyahu’s spokesman quickly sought to distance the prime minister from Levy’s remarks, saying that only statements made by the prime minister reflect Israeli policy.

Meanwhile, Palestinians have been expressing a growing anxiety over the dearth of contact between their leadership and the new Israeli government.

Apart from two phone conversations between Netanyahu’s foreign policy aide, Dore Gold, and Yasser Arafat’s deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu-Mazen, there has been no real diplomatic contact since the new government took office last week.

But the Palestinians were bolstered by last weekend’s Arab summit in Cairo, convened to consider the Arab world’s response to the change of government in Israel.

Palestinian Minister Sa’eb Erakat, in an interview with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, maintained that the summit had been an important success for peacemaking because for the first time almost all the Arab world had united around the peace process with Israel.

The 21 Arab leaders – only Iraq was not invited – attending the summit joined in a closing statement that warned Israel not to deviate from the land-for- peace principle that was the basis for the 1991 peace conference in Madrid.

On the Israeli side, both Netanyahu and Levy warned against setting preconditions on the road to resumed negotiations.

But privately, Israeli officials indicated that the Cairo summit had passed off more moderately than they had feared.

Intensive diplomatic efforts by the United States and Egypt had resulted in the watering down of draft resolutions submitted by Syria. Those resolutions wanted Arab states to cease their normalization with Israel.

In the end, this sanction was hinted at only indirectly, as a measure to which the Arab could revert if the peace process failed to get back on track.

The summit’s closing statement warned that a hard-line approach by the new Israeli government would be countered by a slowdown in the normalization of ties with Arab countries.

Back at home, Netanyahu’s diplomatic prowess was being tested as he sought to overcome obstacles to bringing Sharon into his Cabinet.

The new Ministry of National Infrastructure planned for Sharon would include power over roads, railways electricity and the politically and economically important Israel Lands Authority.

But other ministers, who would be required to transfer authority over these areas, have been reluctant to relinquish jurisdiction.

The minister of justice, Ya’acov Ne’eman, was shuttling between Sharon, Netanyahu and the aggrieved ministers midweek in an effort to assuage everyone and still come up with a package of powers that Sharon would agree to accept.

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