Netanyahu not ready to bow to US pressure

Warren Christopher, the American Secretary of State, yesterday held his first talks with Binyamin Netanyahu, the newly elected Israeli prime minister, in an attempt to salvage the peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians and to continue negotiations with Syria.

The United States also wants to smooth over its differences with Mr Netanyahu following its overt support for Shimon Peres, his opponent in last month's election. Mr Christopher announced that Mr Netanyahu will visit President Bill Clinton in Washington on 9 July.

Even as Mr Christopher's aircraft landed yesterday morning the prime minister's office curtly announced that "there is no intention to present any [Israeli] positions to Secretary of State Christopher during his visit". It added that it was the American administration which requested the meeting with Mr Netanyahu.

Underlining that his government would not be pressured by the US, Mr Netanyahu said later that his policy of "peace with security" had won a solid mandate in the election. He said that he was willing to resume talks with the Palestinians and Arab states without preconditions, though he has spelt out Israel's determination to concede nothing on the Golan issue, Jerusalem or a Palestinian state.

On his flight from Washington Mr Christopher said the US wanted Mr Netanyahu to meet Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, adding: "I am not going to make a precise recommendation about how he goes about it." Asked about this, Mr Netanyahu repeated his position that he might meet Mr Arafat if it was necessary for Israeli security.

Mr Christopher gave no hint of distress during a joint press conference, but the election of Mr Netanyahu, who has pledged not to give back the Golan Heights to Syria, has meant that his almost ceaseless shuttle diplomacy between Damascus and Jerusalem has counted for nothing. Syria has made clear that without the return of the Golan, captured by Israel in 1967, there can be no peace agreement.

The frustration of his hopes for Middle East peace may also ensure that Mr Christopher will not be tempted to prolong his stay at the State Department. He has visited Jerusalem and Damascus more than 20 times each in the last four years and Latin America only once. One of the passengers on his aircraft said yesterday that "When we take off from Shannon after refuelling on our way from Washington even the birds don't bother to look up any more."

The US also wants to keep the accords between Israel and the Palestinians on track by seeking an early Israeli withdrawal from Hebron. Mr Netanyahu said he was still studying this. In keeping with his style during his first days in power, Mr Netanyahu played his cards close to his chest refusing to be drawn on whether he accepts the formula of "land for peace", which Arab states insisted at their weekend summit was the only basis for peace talks.

Mr Christopher flies to Cairo today to meet President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and MrArafat. The US is expected to press Israel to make economic concessions to the Palestinians whose standard of living has fallen sharply because workers and goods cannot leave Gaza and the West Bank.Palestinian per capita income has fallen 20 per cent in the last year.

When Mr Netanyahu visits Washington he is likely to receive the same embrace as Mr Peres from President Clinton. However, the White House is nervous that its Middle East policy might be seen as unravelling later in the year if Israeli troops enter Palestinian enclaves or the conflict between Israel and Syria intensifies in Lebanon.

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