US suspicious of Netanyahu's plan for Hebron

White House suspects Israeli PM will use talks to delay withdrawal

An old Washington political saying holds that "whatever a US administration thinks about the rest of the world on coming into office, it always leaves it four years later hating the Israelis and the French".

Hate may be too strong a word for the feelings of the Clinton administration, at the end of its first term, towards Benjamin Netanyahu. But in the four months since he became Prime Minister, the White House has come to suspect, dislike and fear him.

Suspicion that he plans to use the Palestinian-Israeli talks, which started yesterday at the Erez checkpoint near Gaza, in order to stall on a withdrawal from Hebron explains why President Bill Clinton decided to send Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, to Israel as a babysitter to the negotiations. At a press conference yesterday with Mr Netanyahu, he stressed the need for implementing the Oslo accords.

The US is angry with Mr Netanyahu, because by opening the tunnel under the Muslim quarter in Jerusalem, he broke his promise not to spring unpleasant surprises on Washington.

Then, as violence flared in the wake of the tunnel opening, he refused an American request to close it. When Mr Clinton asked him to set a date for the redeployment from Hebron, home to 100,000 Palestinians, he turned him down.

"The Americans now expect Netanyahu to give them their due," writes Hemi Shalev, an Israeli analyst, "not in pretty words, but through logical and accelerated talk on Hebron, speedy implementation of the redeployment in the city and furthering other issues from the Oslo Accords that remain unresolved."

In Washington, Mr Netanyahu, after first showing defiance in the wake of the tunnel opening, adopted a more conciliatory tone, notably in his relations with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader.

But Americans and Palestinians alike fear Mr Netanyahu will use the talks starting today to renegotiate agreements signed by the previous Israeli government.

The prospects for agreement do not look hopeful. Mr Arafat wants implementation of the accords he signed last year with Israel. His five main demands are: a date for Israeli redeployment from Hebron; implementation of the agreement on safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza; Palestinian control of the airport at Gaza; release of 3,500 Palestinian prisoners; and the start of negotiations on a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israel has a wholly contrary agenda. Much revolves around limiting the autonomy of the Palestinian enclaves by buffer-zones, limitation on the type of arms to be carried by Palestinian police, hot pursuit of attackers, punishing police who fired at Israelis, and no release of prisoners who have killed Israelis.

If a crisis in the talks does occur, it is not clear what the US can do about it. General Rafael Eitan, the Agriculture Minister, says Mr Netanyahu is the first Israeli prime minister who is "not sucking up to the Americans". President Clinton also has an interest in preventing a crisis occurring before he faces re-election in November.

The Israeli negotiating team will be headed by Lieutenant General Dan Shomron and the Palestinian side by Saeb Erekat, Minister of Local Government in the Palestinian Authority. All substantive decisions will be taken by Mr Netanyahu.

An Israeli analyst noted gloomily that, as a young Israeli diplomat in Washington, Mr Netanyahu was first noticed in 1983 when he wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal arguing that agreement with Palestinians was not central to peace in the Middle East.

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