WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, brushing aside U.S. calls for prompt action to revive the Mideast peace process, told President Clinton on Monday that he is not yet ready to end the occupation of the West Bank city of Hebron and is not bound by informal agreements that the previous Israeli government reached with Syria.
Still, Netanyahu said his new government, elected May 29, is determined to pursue peace with Syria and the Palestinians--but in its own way.
Netanyahu said the security situation in Hebron, where about 450 Jewish settlers live in an enclave amid more than 100,000 Palestinians, is still too precarious to permit Israel to pull out its troops. An incident in Hebron, which is revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims as the burial site of the patriarch Abraham, could derail the entire peace process, he said.
"Improving the security in Hebron is not only an Israeli interest but it is a Palestinian interest," he said before meeting with Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
Under the Israeli-Palestinian accords first negotiated in Oslo and signed in Washington in 1993, Israel was supposed to have withdrawn its army from most of Hebron by March, leaving only a residual force to guard the Jewish quarter.
But the government of former Prime Minister Shimon Peres postponed the redeployment after a rash of suicide bombings in February and March. Netanyahu's right-wing government is not eager to take a step that its more dovish predecessors had avoided.
Hebron is the only major Palestinian population center in either the West Bank or the Gaza Strip still under Israeli occupation.
As for making peace with Syria, Netanyahu said his government has no obligation to honor informal agreements that the Peres regime reached with Damascus during protracted negotiations at Wye Plantation in rural Maryland.
"As you know, there are no signed agreements that are legally binding," Netanyahu told reporters in the White House drive after his hourlong meeting with Clinton.
Dennis B. Ross, the administration's Middle East trouble-shooter who is trying to broker a deal to restart the Israel-Syria talks, said both sides have expressed interest in resuming negotiations. But he said they remain far apart on details and preconditions. "The Syrians want to have some assurance that the last several years of negotiations have not just been erased," Ross said.
Although clearly disappointed that Netanyahu was unwilling to move more quickly, the administration was restrained in its public reaction.
"The United States is still committed to peace and security," Clinton told reporters with Netanyahu at his side before the meeting. "I think we're making some progress in that direction, and I am going to do whatever I can to advance it."
Elsewhere, the newly created Palestinian-Israeli steering committee, assigned to work out details of implementing the peace agreement, met for the first time in the West Bank town of Jericho. Hebron was at the top of the Palestinian agenda.
Ross said the meeting was encouraging because it marked the establishment of "channels of communication and working relationships that make it possible to find ways to move forward."