WASHINGTON, Feb. 17 (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Washington “more hopeful than ever” about achieving peace and security in the Middle East, according to Israel’s ambassador to the United States. In talks last with President Clinton, “all subjects were raised of common interest,” including the “peace process in all its aspects,” Ambassador Eliahu Ben-Elissar told hundreds of public policy activists at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council’s annual conference. Negotiations with Palestinians on permanent-status issues will start “in a matter of days,” Ben-Elissar said. But he warned not to expect these problems, including Jerusalem, refugees and settlements, “to be solved as quickly as we would like to have them solved.” Also featured Sunday at the Mayflower Hotel were U.S. National Security Adviser Samuel Berger and former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Responding to a request to clarify “confusion” over the Israeli government’s policy on settlements, Ben-Elissar said, “We do believe it is our right, human, historic, political and emotional, to have Jews live wherever they wish.” However, he added that in deference to how “inflammatory” the issue can become, “we’re not going to create in the near future any new settlements.” At the same time, he said, “we will not do anything to stop the natural growth of Israeli communities even if they are in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.” The ambassador also referred to the recent campaign launched by Churches for Middle East Peace calling for the division of Jerusalem, saying that the group has couched its call in “politically correct” language by urging “shared” control over the city. He thanked NJCRAC for “understanding the nature of this campaign” and for mobilizing to counter it. Ben-Elissar pledged that Jerusalem would never be divided. For his part, Berger reiterated the upbeat view of the Netanyahu visit, calling the talks “open, trustful and thoughtful.” He said there was “renewed hope” for peace after the conclusion of the Hebron agreement last month. Berger pledged the administration’s “commitment to staying the course and achieving a comprehensive and lasting settlement” in the peace process and to strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. “The imperative now is to build on the momentum from last month’s agreement,” he said, adding that the two leaders also “exchanged ideas on how to revive negotiations with Syria.” Meanwhile, he reiterated Clinton’s “unshakable determination” to do what is necessary to preserve Israel’s military edge.
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