Netanyahu faces US inquisition

Israeli leader to be grilled over Hebron and the West Bank settlements
Having weathered the squalls of the weekend Arab summit, Israel's new right-wing Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, now faces the more searching test of a first post-election visit by the United States Secretary of State, Warren Christopher.

American diplomats complain that Mr Netanyahu has not given the Clinton administration clear answers on the substance of his peace diplomacy.

"Peace is the most heartfelt desire of every citizen in Israel," the Prime Minister pledged on Sunday, "and it is the strategic choice of Israel." Mr Christopher wants him to put flesh on the rhetoric.

What, he is expected to ask Mr Netanyahu when they meet here today, is he going to do about Hebron, the last West Bank city still under occupation, which Israel was supposed to evacuate in March? Is he going to provoke the Palestinians by expanding West Bank settlements, as promised in the Likud election campaign and more guardedly in last week's coalition guidelines? And what sort of dialogue does Mr Netanyahu envisage with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat?

An interview published yesterday in Newsweek suggests that the Prime Minister has not reconciled himself to embracing an old enemy some of the new Israeli ministers still dismiss as a "terrorist" and a "war criminal". Mr Netanyahu told the American news magazine he would meet Mr Arafat "if we come to the conclusion that a meeting with him is important and essential for the security of Israel".

The official reaction to Sunday's Arab summit communique, which called for withdrawal from all occupied territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, was predictably combative - attack as the best form of defence.

"The peace process cannot be made hostage to any prior conditions," Mr Netanyahu retorted. "Peace talks have to be based on security for Israel and for all the peoples in the region. Preconditions that hinder security for Israel are incompatible with peace negotiations. For the quest for peace to continue, for it to achieve success and move forward, such preconditions must be removed."

The Foreign Minister, David Levy, denounced the Arab rulers for dictating terms that would be better left to the negotiating table. "We want a more moderate approach as a basis for the continuation of the process, which places rules and obligations on both sides," he said.

Israeli Middle East affairs commentators were more sanguine about the Cairo jamboree. "The communique was the best that could have been expected from the Israeli point of view," Dr Barry Rubin, of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Tel-Aviv's Bar-Ilan University, told the Independent. "It kept an open mind, it didn't foreclose any options.

"There was no call to freeze normalisation. Most importantly, the Arabs accepted the breakthrough which the peace process has made. Even with its criticisms, this summit established a new framework for Arab diplomacy. But the next summit will be more important from the point of view of setting policy."

Dr Avraham Sela, a Hebrew University expert, added that the communique made no new demands on Israel. "The demand to withdraw from the administered territories, including Eastern Jerusalem, is not new," he wrote in the Jerusalem Post. "But what was different was the underlying message, appealing to Israel to contribute its share to the peace process."

The influential Hebrew daily paper, Ha'aretz, highlighted Mr Arafat's summit statement: "The election results in Israel have created a new reality which cannot be ignored. Despite all the slogans and extreme declarations, we are still interested in negotiating with the elected government. We cannot agree to retreat from what has already been attained and agreed upon, as this would mean a return to the unknown whose results cannot be foreseen by anybody."

But the tabloid Yediot Ahar-onot underlined a passage in the communique warning Israel that any deviation from the principle of territory for peace would force the Arabs to re-examine the steps they would take.

The paper's veteran Arab affairs writer, Smadar Peri, noted a Machiavellian prediction from a Syrian spokesman: "We can allow ourselves to be moderate. Netanyahu will stick to the Likud's platform, will expand the settlements and will not withdraw from the Golan Heights. Then we shall convene for a new Arab summit and take much more interesting decisions."

The Israeli left is worried that he may be right. So, it seems, is President Bill Clinton's administration.