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NEWS ANALYSIS Netanyahu strives to satisfy competing U.S., Israeli demands

JERUSALEM, May 12 (JTA) — The space between a rock and a hard place would represent for Benjamin Netanyahu a veritable paradise compared to his current predicament — stuck between Madeleine Albright and Ariel Sharon. The Israeli prime minister, staring at the daunting prospect of a full-scale confrontation with the Clinton administration, must have been relieved to receive an invitation from the secretary of state to meet him in Washington this week. But there was little time to celebrate. Within hours, a bombshell came crashing in upon the premier from Sharon, his hard-line infrastructure minister. Netanyahu had hinted to U.S. officials, Sharon told the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, that he was ready to accept an American plan for Israel to redeploy from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank in exchange for Palestinian steps to improve security. Sharon also ominously reiterated that anything more than a 9 percent redeployment was dangerous to the unity of the coalition. Netanyahu’s government, he implicitly threatened, would not continue to exist if the premier went ahead with a concession to American pressure. For his part, Netanyahu knows that he has hardly felt the full force of American pressure. The Clinton administration has so far been reluctant to go public with its quarrel with Israel over advancing the peace process. But Netanyahu knows that U.S. patience is rapidly running out. President Clinton, after consulting with his senior foreign policy aides Monday, agreed that Albright should postpone her scheduled departure for Europe in order to meet with the Israeli leader in an effort to bridge their differences. The decision to have Albright meet with Netanyahu was to a large degree based on an assessment from U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, who reported at the Monday meeting that his weekend visit to Jerusalem had elicited some creative thinking from the Israeli side. While a Clinton-Netanyahu-Arafat summit originally slated for Monday in Washington had to be canceled in the face of Israeli opposition to the 13 percent redeployment figure, the Clinton administration still hopes that Israel’s belated creativity can lead to a summit before the end of May. As they did with Monday’s failed summit, U.S. officials have made it clear that the rescheduled meeting would only take place if there is Israeli agreement on the pullback figure. Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat has signaled his own agreement to the American plan — a step that he says represents a huge compromise compared to the Palestinians’ original demand for a 40 percent redeployment. The American diplomatic team has taken credit for lowering the Palestinians’ expectations, which, they recall, was Netanyahu’s key priority in the earlier months of this 14-month negotiating stalemate. The Palestinians say they are not about to accept anything less than the 13 percent figure. At the same time, Sharon and other hard-liners in the Cabinet appear not about to budge from 9 percent. All of which is going to require some fancy footwork on Netanyahu’s part. The Israeli creativity that Ross alluded to is reported to hinge on the idea of an “escrow” under which Israel would “deposit” several percentage points of West Bank land with the United States for transfer to the Palestinian Authority at a later date, conditional upon the Palestinians’ adherence to already-signed agreements. It remains unclear when that later date would be. According to Sharon, whose interview with Yediot was spread over the paper’s front page Tuesday, that state of ignorance affects not only media reports but members of the Cabinet as well. Sharon maintained in the interview that even the members of Netanyahu’s Inner Cabinet — which includes Sharon, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky — have been kept in the dark as the premier seeks to placate both Washington and his own political allies. Sharon insisted that Netanyahu had at a previous stage indicated to the United States that he would agree to the 13 percent — although the premier has in recent weeks insisted that he does not have the authorization of his Cabinet to make such a commitment. “He got into complications then, and he can’t get out of them now,” Sharon said. Underscoring Sharon’s published threats, National Religious Party leaders met with Netanyahu on Tuesday to warn him not to take actions that could threaten the survival of his own government. Some political observers believe that the NRP as a whole, or at least some of its nine Knesset members, oppose any withdrawal at all, even the 9 percent to which Sharon has given his grudging assent. This is the position, too, of some members of the so-called Land of Israel bloc, a group of 17 hard-line legislators from all the coalition parties who have consistently threatened to bring down the government if it signs away any portion of Greater Israel. While in Washington, Netanyahu expects to drum up support for his stance. He was slated to address two major American Jewish conventions: the American Jewish Committee later this week and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, next week. The prime minister also intended to do some energetic lobbying on Capitol Hill, where he feels he finds more sympathy for his positions than among the Clinton administration. His choice as he left for Washington — and it was a delicate one for him, fraught with dangers — was whether to use these sessions with Jewish and Congressional leaders to launch a head-on confrontation with the Clinton administration. Recent letters from a large majority of Senators and Congressmen urging the Clinton administration not to pressure Israel have been a major source of support for the embattled premier. But the White House was reported in Israel to be touting a poll conducted among American Jews that showed a high level of support for its Middle East peace policy. Netanyahu was being told by some diplomats and advisers that he runs the risk of coming to be seen as an ally of the Republicans, thereby weakening Israel’s traditional ties with the Democratic Party. On the other hand, if he creates the impression that he is moving toward acceptance of the 13 percent figure, the forces on the right flank of his coalition will prepare an uncomfortable landing for him when he flies back home.