Clinton and Bibi manage show of amity

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Benjamin Netanyahu met President Clinton yesterday for the first time as Israeli Prime Minister, and put aside a series of differences over the path to Middle Eastern peace in a public show of amity between Israel and its most important friend and ally.

In what officials hailed as a sign that things were going well, the Oval Office talks overshot their appointed time by 45 minutes. Smiling and relaxed, Mr Netanyahu spoke of "productive discussions" during a brief break for a stroll in the White House rose garden.

But behind yesterday's cordial facade, deep problems still lurked. Washington is ready to be patient and accommodating as the Likud leader elaborates his strategy for negotiating with the Arabs - but not to the extent of dropping the land-for-peace formula that has under- pinned the US-sponsored "peace process" to date.

Before leaving for Washington, however, Mr Netanyahu pointedly noted that Jerusalem was "not willing to accept the deterioration of security as an existing and natural situation." The words were not just a thinly- coded reminder that resumed bargaining with Syria over the Golan heights was out of the question, and of his opposition to a fully-fledged Palestinian state, with its capital in Jerusalem.

They underline Likud's repudiation of the concilatiory policies of previous Labour Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres - for whose re-election this spring the White House wished publicly, but in vain.

On that last point, at least both sides will let bygones be bygones. Not only Israel, but also an exceptionally pro-Israeli Democratic President in a US election year have a great interest in a smooth working relationship.

Israel's longstanding concern over terrorism, moreover, has suddenly acquired new resonance here, after last month's truck bomb explosion in Dhahran, which killed 19 US servicemen. But the broader divergence is as wide as ever.

At best, Mr Netanyahu is prepared to make modest "confidence-building" gestures, in- cluding a promise to meet the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, and an easing of the restrictions on Palestinian workers crossing from the West Bank and Gaza, imposed after the recent spate of suicide bombings in Israel.

But if the Administration is happy to be patient, parts of the Jewish comunity here are not. A group of 150 rabbis from the Jewish Peace Lobby have written to Mr Clinton demanding that the $1.2 billion annual economic aid Israel receives from the US be suspended if Mr Netanyahu carries out his campaign promise to expand West Bank settlements. Now was "not the time for a wait-and-see policy", the letter said.

But the Prime Minister was sure of a warmer welcome from AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, and on Capitol Hill where he will today address a Congress controlled by Republicans instinctively more sympathetic to his hardline approach to national security.