News Analysis: Netanyahu’s Visit Unlikely to Produce Major Surprises

President Clinton wants Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to announce a date for redeploying Israeli troops from most of Hebron.

Clinton also wants the Israeli premier to agree to meet Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.

Netanyahu wants Clinton to tighten economic sanctions on Syria and give his new government continued wiggle room on implementing the peace process.

What the leaders want and what they get during their first meeting since the Likud leader captured the prime ministership is, of course, a different story.

“Netanyahu’s going to have to face up to specifics,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“But they are not going to negotiate the final status on this trip,” he said, referring to talks mandated by Israel’s agreements with the Palestinians to resolve the largest sticking points in the relationship: Jerusalem, settlements, refugees and Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

Instead, Hoenlein and others familiar with the proposed agenda for the trip expect anti-terrorism efforts to take center stage during Netanyahu’s visit next week.

Official Washington has the red carpet ready for Netanyahu’s arrival. Israelis have often said their prime ministers are elected in the Jewish state but come to the White House for their coronation.

When he arrives Tuesday, Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Secretary of Defense William Perry.

Clinton is then planning to receive Netanyahu in the Oval Office.

After spending the night in the Blair House, the official guest quarters for visiting dignitaries, Netanyahu is scheduled to address a joint meeting of Congress and meet with congressional leaders.

He is also likely to meet with Republican presidential hopeful Bob Dole. The trip is scheduled to end July 13 in New York, where Netanyahu plans to speak to the Conference of Presidents and meet with New York Gov. George Pataki and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

While U.S. officials have remained quiet in public about what they hope to achieve during the visit in order to avoid a clash if Netanyahu does not deliver, the State Department has not masked its desire to push the Israeli leader toward better relations with the Palestinians.

On his recent trip to Israel, Christopher had hoped to secure a promise from Netanyahu to meet with Arafat.

Instead of a promised meeting, America’s senior diplomat got a maybe – - followed by public statements by Netanyahu reiterating his pledge that he would consider meeting Arafat only if he deemed it in the security interests of Israel.

Netanyahu did, however, authorize a meeting between his foreign policy adviser, Dore Gold, and Arafat.

Christopher had also hoped to secure a promised time frame for redeployment from most of Hebron, the last of seven West Bank cities that Israel still controls.

State Department officials are also apparently holding out some hope that Netanyahu will move forward from his position regarding Hebron. Last week, the prime minister said his Cabinet was still studying the issue.

While there are disagreements about the timing of the key issues, “Netanyahu is saying a lot of what the United States wants to hear,” said Hoenlein, who recently returned from a Conference of Presidents visit to Israel.

His delegation of current and past chairmen met with senior government officials, including Netanyahu.

With both the U.S. and Israeli administrations hoping for smooth relations, many observers here expect a simple message next week: “We will work with you and we will work together,” said Jason Isaacson, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Washington office.

“There will be a lot of reassurances on both sides,” he predicted.

But while Israeli and American officials agree on the questions, the answers are likely to be different.

What is most important, said Melvin Dow, president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is that there will be “no surprises from Israel or America.”

“Basically, the administration wants to have and expects to have the same type of relationship with Netanyahu” as it did with former Prime Ministers Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, he said.

But “this will not be a ceremonial visit,” Dow added.

Netanyahu postponed his visit “so he had a chance to do his homework and meet with Christopher to develop specific, substantive items to discuss.”

Although the White House meetings are expected to focus on peace process issues, Netanyahu has already made a splash on Capitol Hill by calling for a cut in the $1.2 billion the United States provides Israel annually in economic assistance.

In a pre-election interview that has been cited by lawmakers here, Netanyahu said of the aid, “In the short term, I would maintain it, but I would adopt a long-term plan to wean Israel off American financial aid, beginning with the $1.2 billion economic aid.”

In the interview with the Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu added some caveats to his plan.

“If our economy grows as I believe it would, then $1.2 billion in economic aid will become insignificant. I believe I can achieve this and wean Israel away from the $1.2 billion within one to two terms in office.”

No one expects Netanyahu’s proposal to find its way into foreign aid legislation anytime soon.

But the campaign statements have AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby whose primary mission is to secure aid to Israel, calling any talk of cuts premature.

“A lot can happen in eight years,” Dow said.

The time is not ripe for a cut in aid, Dow said, because “as long as there are negotiations with Palestinians and Israel, psychologically, a cut in foreign aid” sends a message that there is a “diminution of the strength of the relationship between Israel and the United States.”

In addition, Dow added that some of the $1.2 billion could be needed for military expenses in the future to offset the cost of deploying missile defense systems now under development.

But at the end of the day, the AIPAC president said that if Israel offers up a cut in aid, “our position is with the democratically elected government of Israel.”

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