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Netanyahu Visits U.S. Without Baggage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Washington on Wednesday for a visit widely expected to be unencumbered by the tension and disagreement that have marked his previous U.S. trips since his election in May.

Netanyahu’s three earlier visits as prime minister, particularly October’s emergency summit after an outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, have been undertaken in an atmosphere of uncertainty about his commitment to the peacemaking begun by his dovish predecessors.

Now though, having signed and implemented agreements with the Palestinians on two issues that had remained unresolved--the redeployment of Israeli forces in the West Bank city of Hebron and this week’s release of female Palestinian prisoners--Netanyahu will be received in Washington as a leader who has followed through on his own promises and those made by the previous, Labor Party-led government.

“For the first time, Netanyahu will meet with President Clinton not as one who promised but has not yet acted but as one who has kept his promises,” columnist Hemi Shalev wrote in the daily Maariv newspaper. “The Americans, for the time being, have no claims.”

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On Tuesday, Israel freed 31 female Palestinian prisoners, keeping a commitment originally scheduled to be carried out 16 months ago. That action, along with the Hebron redeployment last month, was viewed here as an indication that the faltering peace process may finally recover. “We are on the road again,” said Yaron Ezrahi, senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute at Hebrew University. “The peace process has proven stronger than all governments and all leaders.”

Netanyahu, who will meet with Clinton today, is also scheduled to meet on his three-day visit with other top administration officials, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen.

Atop the agenda, Israeli officials said, is finding a formula to restart long-stalled peace negotiations with Syria. Israel and Syria have held sporadic talks since 1991, but they broke off last spring, before Netanyahu’s election, and have yet to resume.

The Syrians have demanded that the talks pick up where they left off, reportedly within reach of a peace agreement. Netanyahu’s Likud Party-led government has said it is not obligated to honor informal accords that the previous Israeli government reached with Damascus.

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The unsigned documents call for Israel to withdraw from all or most of the Golan Heights in exchange for Syria’s agreement to detailed security measures.

Netanyahu is expected to tell Clinton that Israel is prepared to consider a compromise on the Golan, the strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. But he will stand by his view that Israel is not obligated by unsigned agreements reached with the previous government.

In an opinion piece that appeared in Haaretz, a leading leftist paper, on the eve of Netanyahu’s U.S. visit, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy called on Syria to return to talks, without conditions. If they do so, he wrote, “they will find in us a trustworthy and serious partner.”

As for Netanyahu, he is also expected to ask Clinton for U.S. help in pressuring Damascus to crack down on the pro-Iranian group Hezbollah, which is waging a deadly guerrilla war against Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon. But the Israeli leader told reporters aboard his plane en route to Washington on Wednesday that an end to Hezbollah attacks on Israeli troops was not a condition for resuming peace talks with Syria, Israel Radio reported.

Netanyahu also is likely to brief Clinton and other U.S. officials on plans for carrying out the next phase of the peace process, including a withdrawal--scheduled to take place by March 7--from certain rural areas of the West Bank.

For the Israeli leader, the U.S. visit may prove an interlude of calm before a domestic storm. Small parties in his coalition are urging him to let construction begin immediately on three controversial projects in or around Jerusalem, construction certain to be bitterly opposed by the Palestinians.


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