News Analysis: U.S. talks of good will but tough days ahead

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Clinton will heap praise on Israeli Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu when the latter visits the White House later this month. Netanyahu will return the favor by pledging to work closely with the United States in pursuing Mideast peace.

But statements of good will coming from the White House and the State Department have barely masked anxiety about the future of peacemaking in the Middle East.

When the time comes to sit down and hammer out strategies, the Clinton and Netanyahu administrations "most likely will find themselves 180 degrees apart," said a senior U.S. government official who asked not to be identified.

Although it is still too early to know exactly how Netanyahu will proceed, both current and former U.S. diplomats agree that tensions will probably flare as the new prime minister confronts tough policy choices on issues such as withdrawal from Hebron, expansion of settlements and talks with Syria. How quickly the first test will come in the U.S.-Israeli relationship is anyone's guess.

Four years ago, when Clinton took office and Yitzhak Rabin ascended to power in Jerusalem, U.S.-Israeli relations went from an all-time low to an all-time high. Now, many veteran Capitol Hill observers expect a return to earlier days, when the United States pressured Israel to moderate its positions.

Whether the relationship will turn into an all-out brawl similar to the settlement uproar that dominated the U.S.-Israel relationship during the early 1990s is up to today's players. Former Bush administration officials involved in that deteriorating relationship do not believe the matter is so bleak.

"Netanyahu is not going to want a repeat of the situation [that existed] when [Yitzhak] Shamir was prime minister," former Secretary of State James Baker said in a telephone interview from his office in Houston.

"There was so much tension" in the relationship that Shamir ultimately lost support among Israelis, said Baker, who worked with the prime minister-elect in the early 1990s, when Netanyahu held key posts in the Shamir government.

Baker, who sparred with Netanyahu over at least one policy disagreement during those years, orchestrated a hardline policy that sought to withhold $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees to Israel unless Shamir, the last Likud prime minister, halted construction on new West Bank settlements.

The United States and Israel eventually settled on a policy under which the United States would deduct money spent on settlements from the loans. But that public split was widely seen as a decisive factor in Shamir's defeat in Israel in 1992 — and also contributed to overwhelming support for Clinton among U.S. Jews, who largely resented the Bush administration's approach.

When Clinton came to power, public pressure on the Jewish state largely disappeared as the Labor-led Israeli government vigorously pursued the peace process without nudges from Washington. Throughout his term, Clinton threw his political weight behind Yitzhak Rabin and then Shimon Peres, unabashedly campaigning for the Labor candidate from afar.

Among the issues most important to U.S. officials are Likud's policies on Jewish settlements and talks with Syria. Since the Six Day War, the United States has opposed Israeli settlements in the West Bank, arguing that they are an obstacle to peace.

"Should the new government embark on aggressive settlement activity which is in contravention to longstanding U.S. policy, tensions could and probably would resurface," Baker said.

At the same time, "there are going to be strong efforts by both governments to make sure the relationship remains very good," Baker said.

"We are not going to see an adverse effect in terms of the U.S. commitment to Israel's security, which is there notwithstanding other tensions in the relationship."

On the question of Syria, predictions were mixed.

"Let's be honest, the peace talks with Syria are dead," a senior U.S. official said.

"The entire premise was land for peace," the official said. "This Israeli government does not believe in returning the Golan."

Baker agreed. "I said even before the election in Israel that the election of Netanyahu does not mean the end of the peace process, but does mean a real hiatus and deep freeze" in relations with Syria and Lebanon, Baker said.

But Baker's former deputy, Edward Djerejian, an ex-U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel, still holds out hope for an Israeli-Syrian accord.

"It's an open question whether Likud would be able to be flexible on the northern border," Djerejian said.

Publicly at least, Clinton administration officials have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

"I think we'll have to adapt our policy to the current situation," said Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

"I don't want to take any adamant positions here as they begin to form their government," Christopher said.

But Bush administration officials said statements of good will could not mask deep policy divisions.

"The Bush administration was hard" on the Israelis, and "played a very assertive role [that] worked in the past. Maybe it's applicable, if not the best route in the future," said Djerejian, who also served as the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs under Baker.

Although many are predicting renewed skirmishes, key players are striving to look beyond areas of conflict. In his victory speech Sunday, Netanyahu pledged to maintain warm relations with Washington.

"Relations with the United States and Israel are strong as a rock," he said. "I am sure that they will continue in the coming four years."

Clinton telephoned Netanyahu to congratulate him minutes after the official election results were announced. On Saturday, Clinton publicly congratulated the Likud leader in his weekly radio address.

One Likud official said the relationship between the two leaders would be an important factor. Relationships "sometimes weigh more than disagreements over policy issues," said Yoram Ettinger, former congressional liaison at the Israeli Embassy in Washington during the Shamir government.

"There is a good personal relationship" between Clinton and Netanyahu, dating back to when they first met during the 1992 U.S. primaries.

"Bill Clinton being the comeback kid does appreciate and respect Benjamin Netanyahu as the Israeli comeback kid," said Ettinger, who is rumored to be on the short list for a top diplomatic post in the United States.

The first test in the relationship could center on Hebron. The United States has made clear that it expects Netanyahu to honor Israel's accord to withdraw the majority of its forces from the only Palestinian city still under Israeli control. The Peres government said it would not move on the issue before turning power over to Netanyahu.

While Netanyahu campaigned on a platform opposed to withdrawal, he also pledged to honor Israel's previous accords. He has not yet indicated how his government would reconcile the two seemingly contradictory positions.

But aides close to the prime minister are laying the groundwork for a delay in the move, and "it may become an issue," acknowledged Ettinger.

Another issue likely to be contentious is the question of U.S. financial support for the Palestinian Authority. Most activists agree that Yasser Arafat's government would not have received more than $200 million in U.S. aid without the aggressive support of the Israeli government, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and American Jewish groups.

With the aid tied to Palestinian compliance with the peace accords with Israel, the United States largely took its cues from Jerusalem.

"Much of the U.S. attitude vis-a-vis the PLO's deliberate and systematic violations of its agreements has been driven by Israeli reaction," Ettinger said.

Hinting that the Likud government would look less favorably on aid to the Palestinians, Ettinger said, "Once there's a dialogue between Netanyahu and the U.S. administration, there is certain to be an impact on the U.S. perception of PLO attitudes."

Voicing the view of many Likud supporters in Israel and the United States, Ettinger remained optimistic about the future of U.S.-Israeli relations.

"Hebron, Jerusalem, settlements and Golan are not do-or-die issues on the agenda" of the United States regarding Israel, Ettinger said.