Peace process is on track, U.S. and Israeli officials say

NEW YORK — U.S. and Israeli officials are signaling American Jews that the new political course staked out by the Netanyahu government will have little impact on the close ties between the two countries.

U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Zalman Shoval, Likud Party official and former Israeli ambassador to the United States, each spoke separately earlier this month before the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Both hoped to quell fears that there would be clashes over prospective changes in the peace process.

Christopher told reporters it was "premature" to respond to the new government's just-released policy guidelines.

The guidelines reflected an expected harder line than the previous Labor-led government on Palestinian statehood, Jewish settlements and the future of the Golan Heights.

In his private meeting with the Conference of Presidents, Christopher underscored the United States' "unshakable commitment" to Israel, declaring that it is imperative not to prejudge the new government or proffer "absolutes" in formulas for achieving peace.

And in an address later to the Council on Foreign Relations, Christopher emphasized plans to continue close cooperation with Israel.

"We look forward to welcoming [Netanyahu] to Washington soon after he forms his government," he said. "We will be consulting closely with him and with our Arab partners on how best to sustain the peace process."

Netanyahu is due in Washington, D.C., in early July.

Insiders believe a honeymoon period between the two countries will last at least until the U.S. elections in November, because the Clinton administration would be loath to tangle with the president's Jewish constituency.

After that, even if policy differences intensify, some say it is unlikely that relations will be as strained as they were during the Bush-Shamir years over issues such as U.S. loan guarantees and Jewish settlements.

At the meeting with Jewish leaders, Christopher declined to address in any substantial way the issue of settlements, the planned redeployment of Israeli troops from Hebron and other potential flashpoints, according to sources who attended the closed meeting.

He did say he had been working with Arab leaders to tone down the inflammatory rhetoric that has surrounded the Arab summit slated for this weekend in Cairo.

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said after the meeting, "The United States is determined and eager to work closely with Israel on common goals."

"There was no hint of unhappiness or dissatisfaction, or of disagreement down the road, or of any consequences of potential disagreements" with Israel, he said.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the conference, said Christopher "is putting significance into building the relationship early on and putting it on the right footing."

He added that Christopher "is acknowledging the new political reality" and "trying to give the government a chance."

For his part, Shoval termed the peace process "irreversible," but said changes and safeguards yet to be implemented would recognize that "we're still living in a dangerous neighborhood."

He said the Oslo agreement with the Palestinians would be "respected and observed" to the degree that it is "respected and observed" by the Palestinians — "no more, no less."

Under the Labor government's peace negotiations, Palestinian "expectations have been raised to unrealistic and unreliable levels and must now be brought down to earth," he said.

"There never was the least chance the Palestinians would get all they demanded."

Centrist Jewish leaders were unruffled by new peace-process policy guidelines released this week that deviated from the policies of the previous government.

"There is nothing dramatically different which should ring alarm bells" in any quarter, said Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman.

The guidelines said that "maintaining Israeli sovereignty on the Golan will be the basis of any agreement with Syria," but that "Israel will not set preconditions for negotiations with Syria."

According to the guidelines, the government will oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state and will fund "increased settlement activity in the Negev, the Galilee, the Golan Heights, the Jordan Valley and Judea and Samaria."

Netanyahu has not explicitly endorsed the Oslo agreements, avoiding even a mention of the word "Oslo" in his written and oral statements since the election.

Gary Rubin, executive director of Americans for Peace Now, was less sanguine than Foxman about the impact of Netanyahu's course of action.

"We certainly hope what the secretary of state said about continuing the close relationship with Israel will remain true," he said.