WASHINGTON (Feb. 13)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched a monthlong parade of Middle East leaders to the White House with a promise to forge ahead with the peace process.
Hoping to solidify gains and maintain momentum from the recent Hebron agreement, Netanyahu’s visit brought the Middle East back to the White House stage.
During a news conference after their meeting, Clinton said the January signing of the Hebron agreement had created a momentum that “must not be wasted.”
The Hebron achievement is a “call to action — and it must be heeded,” he added.
During three hours of meetings Thursday, Netanyahu presented Clinton with Israel’s plan for renewing talks with Syria.
But neither leader would comment on any specific proposals that had been made to restart the Israeli-Syrian talks, which were suspended last March.
Clinton told reporters that they had nothing to say publicly because it “will only undermine the chances for peace.”
According to an Israeli official, Netanyahu had expressed his willingness to accept U.N. Security Council land-for-peace resolutions as a basis for restarting the talks with Syria.
Israel would also “recognize” the discussions held between the previous Labor government and Syria, the official added. But it remained unclear how far this recognition would extend.
There had been reports that Netanyahu and Clinton were going to discuss a possible deal to send jailed Hamas leader Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook from the United States to Jordan instead of extraditing him to the Jewish state.
The potential deal comes amid concerns that an Israeli trial for Marzook would lead to additional Hamas terror attacks.
But Clinton told reporters that the two leaders did not discuss the Marzook case because it was a matter for the courts.
But according to officials close to the meeting, representatives from the two countries had discussed Marzook.
Meanwhile, the Jordanians have sent signals that they are amenable to the extradition of Marzook to their country, sources said.
A high-ranking official from the Israeli Justice Ministry was at the Justice Department recently to discuss Marzook, the sources added.
In an effort to close the circle of peace, Clinton has scheduled meetings with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, Jordan’s King Hussein and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak.
Administration officials also plan to meet in the coming weeks with high-level delegations from Saudi Arabia and Oman.
Missing from the list, of course, is Syrian President Hafez Assad, whom Clinton and Netanyahu hope to bring into the peace talks.
Netanyahu’s visit, the fourth to Washington since his election as prime minister in May, marked his first trip here during a period of calm in U.S.- Israel relations.
The session, however, was not without yet another looming deadline: Israeli forces are to withdraw from additional West Bank territories by March 7, according to the recently signed Hebron agreement.
Netanyahu presented U.S. officials with preliminary maps detailing Israel’s withdrawal plans, according to officials.
During the meetings, Netanyahu also expressed Israel’s concern over a potential sale of 100 American-made F-16 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, officials said.
During his flight to Washington, Netanyahu was quoted as telling reporters aboard his plane that he would view the sale “with severity.”
Clinton told the news conference that the United States had not been asked by the Saudi government for the F-16s.
He also said it was an American priority to “do nothing that will undermine the qualitative edge of Israeli forces in the Middle East.”
While the meetings focused on substantive issues, Clinton and Netanyahu also sought to build better working relations.
Those relations had been frayed by Clinton’s all-but-explicit endorsement of Shimon Peres in last year’s Israeli elections and by Netanyahu’s decision in September to open a new entrance to an archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem. That move was followed by three days of Palestinian rioting.
Both leaders went out of their way to heap praise on each other.
“I want once again to congratulate him for the agreement that was made with Chairman Arafat over Hebron. It was a brave and wise thing to do,” Clinton told Netanyahu at the beginning of their Oval Office meeting.
Netanyahu, who was not scheduled to address the media prior to the meeting, jumped in to thank Clinton.
“We have seen him personally and his staff make a tremendous contribution for peace. I think their contribution for the Hebron agreement was decisive,” Netanyahu said.
“And it reflects and reaffirms the leadership for peace that President Clinton has shown throughout his term of office.”
True to his promise to raise the issue of Palestinian compliance and to call on the Palestinians to fulfill their signed accords with Israel, Netanyahu added, “I think we’ve taken bold steps for peace. It’s time that we see such steps from our partners, as well.”
In addition to meeting with Clinton, Netanyahu had his first face-to-face meeting with Secretary of Defense William Cohen and also saw Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.
Netanyahu also met with Madeleine Albright for the first time since she assumed the duties of secretary of state.
Albright told the Israeli premier that she would devote special attention to promote Middle East peace.
Netanyahu also raised the issue of Palestinian compliance with her, calling on Arafat to combat terrorism and to close Palestinian Authority offices operating in eastern Jerusalem, according to a spokesman at the Israeli Embassy.
The meeting came on the heels of new revelations that Israel knew of Albright’s Jewish roots two years ago but did not tell her.
Former Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were told of Albright’s Jewish background in 1994 by Israel’s then-ambassador to the United Nations, Gad Ya’acobi.
Ya’acobi said in an interview this week that he learned of Albright’s Jewish roots from a British friend who had known her father in London during the war years.
Albright reiterated Thursday that the recent revelations about her Jewish heritage would not change her outlook or actions as secretary of state.
“There is absolutely nothing that has been revealed that has changed any of my values or any sense that I would have done anything differently” had she known earlier about her past, she said in a brief interview after the three-hour meeting between Netanyahu and Clinton.