WASHINGTON — Reeling from Israeli election returns that seem to have swamped his hopes for more progress on Middle East peace, President Clinton vowed Thursday to continue U.S. support for Israel's security and indicated that he is ready to work with the apparent winner, Benjamin Netanyahu.
"Whatever the results, the United States will continue its policy of support for the people of Israel, for the democratic process there and for the process of peace," Clinton told reporters. He added, somewhat wistfully, that the first big breakthrough in Middle East peacemaking came with an Israeli prime minister from Netanyahu's Likud Party.
But there are fears that Netanyahu's apparent narrow victory would move back to Square One Washington's attempt to mediate peace between Israel and Syria, the region's two most intractable adversaries. During the campaign, Netanyahu ruled out any Israeli withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights abutting Syria, blocking the sort of land-for-peace swap that U.S. officials believe is the only possible basis for a settlement.
Regional experts said continued Israeli-Syrian animosity would block any possibility of a comprehensive regional peace that could defuse the kind of Islamic militancy that has been blamed for terrorist attacks on targets ranging from Egypt to New York's World Trade Center.
Clinton--much of whose own prestige was committed to the apparently losing campaign of Prime Minister Shimon Peres--said he stayed up until 1 a.m. Thursday, studying returns relayed from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Despite Clinton's public embrace of Peres, however, the president and Netanyahu would likely enjoy at least a brief honeymoon. In both countries, a combination of domestic politics and international diplomacy dictates close cooperation between the Israeli and American leaders.
The president said he was heartened that Netanyahu, during his election campaign, made "a clear commitment to continue the peace process." But even a cursory reading of Netanyahu's rhetoric shows that his idea of peace negotiations is far different from Clinton's.
In addition to his reluctance to consider compromise on the Golan Heights, Netanyahu made it clear that he would be much tougher than Peres in his negotiations with Palestinian leaders over the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Likud leader has said he hopes to increase the ranks of Israeli settlers in the West Bank by about 300,000 people, augmenting the settlements that Washington has long called an "obstacle to peace."
Netanyahu also has said that he would feel free to send Israeli troops anywhere in the West Bank, even into Arab cities that are now under Palestinian authority.
An immediate impact of the close election results was the suspension of talks among the United States, France, Israel, Syria and Lebanon on procedures for monitoring a U.S.-brokered agreement to stop attacks on civilians by Hezbollah guerrillas and the Israeli army in Lebanon. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said that until the Israeli political scene clarifies, "it's not possible, obviously, for us to have negotiations on a very important topic like this."
Nevertheless, Clinton vowed to press ahead. "Our policy will be the same," the president said. "If Israel is prepared to take risks for peace, we are determined to do our best to reduce the risks and increase the security of those who do that."
In terms of U.S. domestic politics, Clinton cannot afford to allow friction to develop with the Israeli leadership. Clinton got the votes of the vast majority of American Jews in 1992 and he needs them again this year.
Former President George Bush did not hide his dislike of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, even though some of Bush's political advisors warned that it would damage his standing with the Jewish community.
White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, who watched the returns with Clinton until early Thursday, said the president analyzed the results with the same political professionalism that he might apply to his own race.
The president "began an analysis of what had happened," Panetta said. "He was trying to understand the dynamics of what worked and what didn't. He looked at who did what on television," and how it played before the Israeli public.
Clinton met with Panetta and National Security Advisor Anthony Lake on Thursday morning to discuss the public statement that the president would make on the election. Clinton was said to believe that silence would indicate disapproval of the apparent result, Panetta indicated, but he did not want to go too far while ballots were still being counted.
In a brief Oval Office meeting before Clinton departed for a daylong visit to Louisiana, the three decided that Clinton would stress the U.S. commitment to the people of Israel and their security.
Times staff writer John M. Broder contributed to this report