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Netanyahu to visit Washington as Clinton seeks move forward

WASHINGTON, April 1 (JTA) — President Clinton has brought the crisis in the Middle East peace process back to the Oval Office with the announcement that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit here next week. Ending weeks of speculation about Netanyahu’s travel plans, Clinton said Tuesday, after meeting with Jordan’s King Hussein, “I’m glad he’s coming.” Despite early conflicting reports from the White House and the State Department about Netanyahu’s intentions, the Prime Minister’s Office made it official Tuesday night, announcing in Jerusalem that the premier had “decided to make a quick visit to the United States beginning Sunday night.” Officials at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee were likely relieved at the announcement. The pro-Israel lobby has billed the Israeli premier as one of the featured speakers at its annual policy conference, which is scheduled to begin Sunday night. The on-again, off-again Netanyahu visit, which Israeli officials cautioned could still be postponed depending on developments in the region, comes as the peace process is on the brink of collapse. Speculation was rife that as a condition of next week’s meeting, Clinton had persuaded Netanyahu to agree to a package of concessions to present to Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat. But U.S. officials continued to refuse to comment on the process, citing orders from Clinton to keep the diplomatic efforts quiet. After the Hussein meeting, Clinton said, “I can tell you this: The United States is prepared to take significant efforts,” but “the less I say about it, the more likely I am to have some success.” Netanyahu has already rebuffed Clinton’s numerous requests to stop construction at Har Homa, the housing development in eastern Jerusalem, which has sparked worldwide condemnation and Palestinian violence. As a result, the mood at the Clinton-Netanyahu meeting is likely to be very different from their last session Feb. 13, which was billed as a congratulatory tour after Israel signed a long-awaited Hebron accord. Since then, relations between Israel and the Palestinians have soured and talks have stalled. Concern is so great over the future of the peace process that Clinton is personally overseeing his peace process team’s effort, according to U.S. officials. Pursuing a broad policy that includes extracting an unequivocal Palestinian renunciation of terrorism and an Israeli pledge not to prejudge any final-status issues, Clinton is hoping to put the process back on track. “Let me say that, unambiguously, a precondition of going forward is a commitment to zero tolerance for terrorism,” Clinton told reporters Tuesday when asked whether Arafat had given a clear signal to terrorists. “That’s what the United States expects, and that’s what we will continue to press for.” At the same time, Clinton continued to criticize Israel for going ahead with the Har Homa development. “Subjects that are clearly identified as to be negotiated in the final status should be negotiated in that way,” he said, referring to settlements, Jerusalem and boundaries, “whether any side likes it or not.” Clinton added, “But I don’t believe there’s an excuse for terrorism in any case.” Clinton enlisted Hussein’s support in U.S. diplomatic efforts to get Netanyahu and Arafat back to the negotiating table, officials said. Special Middle East envoy Dennis Ross made a quick trip to the region last week. Another option under consideration to move the process forward is to send Madeleine Albright on her first trip to the Middle East as secretary of state. But Clinton said such a visit would have to be “part of a clear strategy designed to produce progress.” The administration is also considering a Netanyahu-Arafat Washington summit if the Israelis and the Palestinians cannot come together in the region. Meanwhile, Israeli officials are working on the details of Netanyahu’s visit. In addition to speaking at AIPAC, the prime minister is expected to address a Washington gathering of Voices United for Israel, an umbrella group that has included evangelical Christians who proselytize Jews.

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