Cold Vibes from White House on Eve of Netanyahu Meetings

The White House is turning a cold diplomatic shoulder toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even as it prepares for his arrival.

In the wake of recent Israeli Cabinet decisions that signal further defiance of an American call for a “credible and substantial” redeployment from the West Bank, President Clinton is planning to forgo the customary working lunch and joint news conference when the Israeli premier visits here next week.

Instead, Israeli and White House officials said Clinton and Netanyahu will meet in the Oval Office on Tuesday, the second day of Netanyahu’s planned three-day visit. Clinton has scheduled a meeting Thursday with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Although the White House is not rolling out any welcome mats, members of Congress, even though they are not in session, have prepared a generous welcome.

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) plans to return to Washington for a private meeting with Netanyahu before the White House session. The House and Senate leadership will treat Netanyahu to lunch.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), both Netanyahu supporters and the chairmen of their respective foreign relations committees, have invited Netanyahu for separate sessions with members of their committees.

The Jewish members of Congress have also scheduled a separate meeting with Netanyahu.

And some expect that Netanyahu might get a better hearing from Vice President Al Gore than from Clinton. A separate meeting with Gore is in the works.

Before he arrives at the White House, Netanyahu’s first Washington event is a support rally by the National Unity Coalition for Israel, a group of avid Christian supporters and hard-line American Jews.

Netanyahu is also scheduled to meet with representatives from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and later with a larger group of Jewish officials.

But it is the White House where all eyes will be focused.

By all indications, the Netanyahu session with Clinton will be serious and confrontational.

The Israeli Cabinet caught the Americans off guard when they decided this week to declare certain territories off-limits in their negotiations with the Palestinians, according to State Department officials.

The move, which appears to violate a Netanyahu promise to Clinton not to surprise the United States, came only days after Dennis Ross, U.S. special Middle East coordinator, left Israel.

The Cabinet is scheduled to meet again Sunday to discuss further redeployment from the West Bank.

A statement issued following Thursday’s Cabinet meeting quoted Netanyahu as telling his ministers that no decision on the scope of a redeployment would be wrapped up before Sunday. The actual size of the pullback would depend on whether the Americans insist on Israel carrying out a third pullback, Netanyahu said, as called for under the Interim Accords.

The inconclusiveness of Thursday’s Cabinet session, along with two earlier government decisions this week, contributed to the pessimism concerning Clinton’s ability to achieve a breakthrough in his discussions.

On Tuesday, the Israeli government voted unanimously to condition any further redeployment on Palestinian compliance with its commitments.

On Wednesday, the Cabinet decided to retain portions of the West Bank as areas of “security interest.”

The Palestinians rejected the Israeli Cabinet decisions this week. Arafat told reporters that what was important were the signed agreements, not the Israeli government decisions.

He was speaking to reporters in Hebron following talks with European Union Middle East envoy Miguel Angel Moratinos and the British deputy foreign secretary, Derek Fatchett.

Meanwhile, confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians were reported in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Hebron was the site of heightened tensions Thursday between Jewish settlers and Palestinian police. Settlers, marking one year since the accord in which 80 percent of the town was transferred to self-rule, scuffled with Palestinian police when they tried to enter the self-rule authority area to visit a Jewish holy site.

Noam Arnon, spokesman for the Jewish residents of Hebron, said that despite the Hebron accords, which allow the Jews access to sacred sites, their movements were being restricted.

Arnon added that acts of Palestinian violence against the Jewish residents have increased in the year since the redeployment took place.

“This year was not a year of peace, it was a year of violence,” Arnon told Israel Radio. “We think the only conclusion that can be made from this is that this year was a failure of the agreement. The [self-rule] areas they obtained were used as a basis for more terrorist actions and attacks.”

Arnon said the Hebron experience should be an example to the government against any further redeployment.

His remarks came a day after tens of thousands of people gathered at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to demonstrate against ceding any further land.

In the Gaza Strip, tempers also flared when busloads of Palestinians arrived at the Gush Katif intersection and demonstrators disembarked and blocked the road, saying they wanted to pray there. Israeli troops also tried to block them from moving forward. Palestinian police arrived to disperse the protesters.

Meanwhile, at nearby Kfar Darom, a Palestinian man was lightly hurt in the hand by IDF fire when the car he was traveling in tried to run an army roadblock.

In light of the events, Israeli and Palestinian security officials in the Gaza Strip met to discuss measures to reduce the tensions.

An army spokesman attributed the recent confrontations to heightened friction ahead of the Clinton talks in Washington.

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