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THE ELECTIONS IN ISRAEL

Amid Words of Congratulations, U.S. Reshapes Policy

June 01, 1996|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Clinton, acknowledging an Israeli election outcome that he had hoped not to see, on Friday invited Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington as the administration began scaling back U.S. Middle East policy to reflect sharply lower expectations.

The White House said Clinton phoned Netanyahu, offering congratulations and best wishes, minutes after the Likud Party candidate was declared the winner of Wednesday's balloting.

The statement added that the president also telephoned Shimon Peres to "express his deep personal regard" for the defeated prime minister.

Netanyahu immediately accepted the invitation for talks with Clinton, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and other U.S. officials.

But he said that he would have to form his government first, a process that could take weeks.

As Clinton spoke with Netanyahu, the president's Republican challenger, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, said while campaigning in Ohio that he believes Netanyahu is "committed to peace."

Dole said that if he wins in November, "I'll work with him."

Clinton and Christopher, in separate comments to reporters, said they want to hear firsthand from Netanyahu about his plans for relations with Israel's Arab neighbors.

Both American leaders said the newly elected prime minister must be given a chance to formulate his own program.

"They will have to chart a course," Clinton said. "Then we'll see where we go from there."

The 46-year-old Likud leader said repeatedly during his campaign that he would not relinquish the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967, and that he would end a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Both positions would make it far more difficult for Washington to broker new Israeli peace agreements with Syria, the Palestinians and other Arab parties.

It was just those statements by Netanyahu that caused the administration to make no secret of its preference for Peres.

In a clear attempt to boost Peres' chances, Clinton had called on Arab leaders to express concern about anti-Israel terrorism during a high-profile conference at Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, held before the Israeli election campaign. Clinton also visited Israel and welcomed Peres to Washington in the midst of the campaign.

Christopher tacitly acknowledged Friday that the administration has all but abandoned its hopes for additional peace-signing ceremonies on the White House lawn.

Christopher said his top priority now will be a much more modest attempt to "help the parties hold on to gains they have already made."

U.S. officials said a primary objective now is to keep Israeli-Jordanian relations on an even keel, to smooth out increasing friction between Israel and Egypt and to prevent a breakdown in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

U.S. officials also hope to prevent a rollback of the tentative contacts between Israel and moderate Arab states, such as Morocco and Oman, that never had much of a role in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Netanyahu has said he will adhere to agreements signed by his predecessors, although he intends to interpret the pacts in a way that gives Israel maximum freedom of action. But some Arab parties have expressed dismay at the election results, which they see as a turn away from peace.

Christopher said he sent telegrams to all Arab capitals Friday to urge leaders "not to rush to judgment."

There seems to be no room in the revised U.S. policy for Christopher's cherished objective of brokering a peace agreement between Israel and Syria.

Syrian President Hafez Assad says he will not consider a peace agreement without the return of the Golan Heights.

Experts in Washington speculated that Assad may be secretly pleased by Netanyahu's victory, because it almost certainly relieves him of the apparently distasteful prospect of signing a peace agreement with Israel.

The administration can neither ignore the Middle East nor tailor its program to fit Netanyahu's hard-line policy, the experts say.

"The United States has no choice, none at all, but to work with the Israeli government in power and to push that government as far forward as possible on the Middle East peace formula," said Edward P. Djerejian, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Syria.

"The administration, for American interests, must try to do everything it can to keep the peace process moving forward," he said. "Admittedly, it will be done at a different pace."

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