Clinton boosts Peres poll hopes

Middle East turmoil: PM's fortunes revive as US promises $100m to fight bombers and keep the peace process on course


President Bill Clinton is putting his money where his mouth is. During an emotional one-day visit to Israel, he announced yesterday that the United States was investing $100m (pounds 66m) to combat the Muslim fundamentalist terrorism that claimed 61 lives here in the past three weeks and threatened to undermine the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Following up Wednesday's summit in Egypt, the US and Israel are beginning negotiations on a bilateral anti-terror agreement. The Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, and John Deutsch, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, stayed behind to get the talks moving.

To counter sceptics in the Israeli opposition, who dismissed the summit as window-dressing designed to salvage the chances of Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister, in the May election, Mr Clinton told reporters he had already sent Congress an urgent request for the first instalment of the $100m.

The US, he said, would immediately begin providing Israel with additional equipment and training. They would join to develop new anti-terror methods and technologies and enhance communications and co-ordination with other governments.

Mr Clinton delivered a double message, one to the bombers, one to the Israeli people. "You will be tracked down," he warned Hamas. "You will be rooted out." And to the Israelis: "Just as America walks with you every step of the way for peace, we are resolved to walk with you until the day that Israel achieves peace with security."

Israeli commentators, soured by the conventional diplomat's passion for balance, have been bowled over by Mr Clinton's enthusiastic support. He even endorsed Mr Peres's closure, as a security measure, of the border between Israel and the Palestinian territories, which reduced Gaza to the point of starvation and kept emergency cases from hospital. A tongue- in-cheek headline in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper called him "the last Zionist".

Nahum Barnea, a columnist who lost a son in the 23 February Jerusalem bus bombing, acknowledged that Mr Clinton, like Mr Peres, was fighting an election and Jewish votes and Jewish campaign contributions counted. But he reminded readers the Clinton administration also had a stake in peace.

"The failure of the peace process is their failure; if terror threatens the continuation of peace, it must be combated. If a change of government would threaten the rest of the peace process, it is necessary to provide aid - cautiously - to the Peres government."

At his press conference yesterday Mr Clinton denied taking sides in Israel's domestic politics. To demonstrate even-handedness he met Binyamin Netanyahu, Mr Peres's right-wing challenger.

But the summit and the visit have undoubtedly boosted Mr Peres's prospects. The Labour leader was more relaxed and self-assured than he has been since the first suicide bombings sent his poll lead falling from 15 per cent to zero.

On Mount Herzi, above Jerusalem, Mr Clinton visited the graves of the bus-bomb victims, then stood hand-in-hand with Leah Rabin for a moment's silence at the tomb of the assassinated prime minister. He laid a wreath inscribed "Shalom Chaver" ("Goodbye Friend"), the valediction he delivered at Yitzhak Rabin's funeral in November and which became a national slogan.

On the road to Tel Aviv, the President spoke by mobile phone to two boys who were wounded in last week's bombing at the Dizengoff shopping centre. They told him from their hospital beds that Israel must persevere with the peace.

All in all, a good day's presidential work: for Mr Clinton, for Mr Peres, and just possibly for peace - so long as the suicide bombers can be kept at bay.