News Analysis: Netanyahu Remains Elusive in Approach to Peace Process

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has succeeded once again in keeping everyone guessing.

This week, in his second trip to Washington after assuming office three months ago, Netanyahu left his American hosts, his public back home, and his partners and rivals in the Mideast peace process all wondering what his declared policy of “peace with security” really means.

His detractors say he does not know; his supporters say all will unfold in due time.

Meanwhile, he continues to pronounce deliberately vague, tantalizingly attractive statements that suffice to beat back pressures from the right and left, at home and abroad, at least for the present.

Faced with mounting pressure from the United States to advance the peace process with the Palestinians, Netanyahu sought this week to focus attention on finding a formula to resume the talks with Syria that were suspended in March after Damascus failed to condemn a series of Hamas suicide bombings in Israel.

On the eve of his meeting Monday with President Clinton, the BBC World Service reported from Washington on the Israeli leader’s bold new “concession” toward Syria, with the correspondent wondering how it would go over with hard-liners in Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

The “concession” was Netanyahu’s apparent readiness to compromise on the Golan Heights, which Syria wants returned as part of any eventual peace deal with Israel.

Indeed, in on-board briefings to reporters accompanying him on the flight over the Atlantic, the prime minister pointedly refused to rule out the prospect of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan — a proposition he has until now vigorously opposed.

Instead, he restated his desire to resume the talks with Syria “without preconditions” on either side.

But once in Washington, Netanyahu told reporters he wanted to negotiate with Syria and emerge “with us holding the Golan” — apparently putting a damper on the BBC-type speculation regarding a dramatic shift in his thinking.

His hourlong meeting with the president passed, it seems, without dramatic incident.

Netanyahu stressed his wish to resume the talks with Damascus, and the two leaders agreed that their experts would try to draft a formula to bring about the talk’s resumption while taking account of the widely disparate Israeli and Syrian positions.

Netanyahu’s foreign policy adviser, Dore Gold, and the State Department’s top Mideast troubleshooter, Dennis Ross, promptly set about this delicate assignment.

If Syrian President Hafez Assad is “interested in negotiating peace, then I’m sure a forum can be found,” Netanyahu told reporters after meeting Clinton. It is “crucial” for neither Israel nor Syria to try to “nail the other side to fixed positions to enter the negotiations.”

The Syrians say they are ready to resume negotiations — but only at the point at which the talks with the defeated Labor-led government broke off earlier this year.

That point, according to unconfirmed accounts, consisted of a “hypothetical” discussion in which a full withdrawal from the Golan was posited — though not concretely pledged — and the talks focused on security arrangements and the normalization of relations.

Netanyahu, emphasizing that no written agreements were reached, says his government is not bound by the talks Syria had with the previous Israeli administration.

The Israeli team — when and if the talks are resumed — will be led now by the new ambassador to Washington, former Likud Knesset member Eliahu Ben-Elissar, who replaced the former Labor-appointed ambassador, Itamar Rabinovich.

Netanyahu’s same strategy of stressing the desire in principle to negotiate while maintaining a cautious approach regarding the substance of those talks was also clearly discernible this week on the Palestinian track.

During his 12 hours in Washington on Monday, Netanyahu met with Clinton, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Secretary of Defense William Perry.

U.S. officials speaking on the condition of anonymity said Netanyahu touted his government’s recent moves, including his own meeting last week with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, and highlighted that Israeli and Palestinian teams of negotiators resumed face-to-face meetings this week for the first time since his May election.

Christopher joined with Clinton in delivering to Netanyahu the message that the United States wants to see progress on the Palestinian track — particularly a quick resolution to the long-delayed turnover of most of the West Bank town of Hebron to the Palestinians.

The redeployment, originally scheduled for late March, was postponed indefinitely by the previous Labor government after a series of Hamas suicide bombings in Israel.

Palestinians have looked to implementation of the redeployment as a test of goodwill by the Netanyahu government regarding the peace process.

But, after the Netanyahu’s breakthrough meeting with Arafat at the Israel-Gaza border, momentum slowed on the Palestinian track.

Monday’s meeting of the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Steering and Monitoring Committee was largely procedural, with the two sides only agreeing on the shape of their future agenda.

Palestinian leaders voiced disappointment after the session, charging that the Israeli team, under former Israel Defense Force Chief of Staff Dan Shomron, had no real mandate to negotiate.

In reality, the Palestinian track probably will remain in limbo until after the Jewish holidays, which end in a month.

Some Israeli political observers say the real crunch will come even later – - after the American presidential election.

If Clinton is re-elected, these observers predict, he will launch a vigorous effort to breathe new life into the Palestinian self-rule accords and to get the talks with Syria to focus on substance.

That will be the moment, say these observers, when Netanyahu’s winning way with words will no longer suffice and he will have to become more specific in his policies.

Yoel Markus, a columnist for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, wrote Tuesday that at the end of the day, Netanyahu’s chief concern would be to “succeed, succeed and succeed.”

To succeed, that is, in his present term of office and thus to succeed in winning a second four years.

At the moment, Markus wrote, Netanyahu seems to be all things to all men, scattering contradictory and unattainable promises.

“But no one knows better than he that war or terrorism, brought on by diplomatic deep-freeze with the Palestinians and the Syrians, will be considered a dire failure and will destroy him in the eyes of the electorate.

“Do not belittle the power of [his] ambition,” Markus urged his readers. “And, above all, don’t make him out an idiot.”

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