WASHINGTON — President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met late into the night Tuesday in long talks that papered over months of friction but failed to produce any steps to restart the deadlocked Mideast peace process.
Clinton, Netanyahu and their aides used words such as "cordial" and "friendly" to describe the drawn-out meeting--the sixth between the two leaders but the first since the president pointedly refused to meet with Netanyahu in November, in a display of U.S. displeasure at the Israeli government's hard-line approach to negotiations with the Palestinians.
The leaders met for an hour and a half in the morning, then reconvened for more talks at night after the president returned from a long-scheduled political speech. Netanyahu also met for breakfast with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, had lunch with Vice President Al Gore and conferred with Albright for more than two hours in the afternoon.
Albright said the talks were "more lengthy than we had thought possible." But she also described them as "a work in progress" that let Clinton and Netanyahu clarify their positions on key issues, although they did not reach agreement on any of them.
She said Clinton emphasized Washington's now familiar agenda, calling on Israel to turn over to the Palestinian Authority a "significant and credible" part of the West Bank and to freeze construction of Jewish settlements in disputed territory. The U.S. position also calls for the Palestinians to make a "100% effort" to stop terrorist attacks against Israelis and to agree to an accelerated pace for negotiations on a final peace treaty.
Both U.S. and Israeli officials said Netanyahu repeated his objections to the agenda items requiring Israeli action and urged Clinton to press the items requiring Palestinian steps when the president holds talks at the White House on Thursday with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
After talks between Clinton and Netanyahu ended about midnight, a senior administration official said: "It was a good discussion. We have a lot of work to do still. . . . The gap has existed for a year. It isn't going to get closed in a night."
Despite the continuing impasse on matters of substance, the atmosphere between Clinton and Netanyahu was astonishingly different than a few months ago.
In November, when Netanyahu was on a private visit to the United States, Clinton said he was too busy to talk to him. White House officials said then that there was nothing to talk about as long as Israel refused to make compromises needed to revive the peace process. Earlier this week, unnamed administration officials insisted that Clinton's meetings with Netanyahu and Arafat would be correct but cool, limited to an hour each with no ceremonial ruffles.
But the cold shoulder is not Clinton's style. Officials said Tuesday that the president also plans a warm reception for Arafat, starting with a working dinner with Albright at the State Department tonight shortly after the Palestinian leader arrives in Washington.
Emerging from his morning meeting at the White House, Netanyahu was asked if he felt "snubbed" by the president or his aides. "No, not at all," he replied. "I think that we had a good meeting, and it was a clear attempt by President Clinton and myself to work closely with one another in order to move the peace process forward. We began--we more than began; we discussed the key issues in considerable detail."
In an interview with Israeli television after his morning talks, Netanyahu said: "We are now looking for a joint formula to advance the process. . . . No agreement has yet been formulated."
Clinton rejected the advice of some Middle East experts to get tough with Netanyahu and Arafat if they continued to rebuff U.S. proposals. Asked by an Israeli journalist if he planned to "pressure" Netanyahu, Clinton said, "I wouldn't use that word."
Albright said it was "premature" to talk about a three-way meeting between Clinton, Netanyahu and Arafat, the sort of negotiations that clearly will be required before the deadlock can be broken.
In recent weeks, Israelis and Palestinians have both complained that the other side is violating the terms of the peace agreement. Both have said they will not move until the other comes into compliance. Asked about Washington's view of the dispute, Albright said, "We are talking about how both parties can fulfill their mutual responsibilities."
Despite the unexpected warmth of his White House reception, Netanyahu continued to court U.S. conservatives, including some avowed foes of Clinton. On Monday, he had met with TV evangelist Jerry Falwell.
Asked for the administration reaction to Netanyahu's meeting with Falwell, who was involved in the distribution of a video that accuses Clinton of murder and other crimes, Albright said, "It is standard procedure in a democracy that when people come on a visit, they can meet with whoever they wish."
Meanwhile, the U.S. Holocaust Museum reversed course and invited Arafat to make a VIP visit to the memorial commemorating the 6 million Jews and millions of others murdered by Hitler. Last weekend, museum officials said it would be "inappropriate" for him to tour the facility.
Although officials said at the time that they withdrew the invitation because some American Jews considered Arafat to be "Hitler incarnate," the museum agreed to receive him under pressure from the State Department and from Jewish groups who said it would be "educational" for Arafat to see the exhibit.
In Paris, Arafat said, "I am keen to visit this museum."
Netanyahu, speaking to reporters at the White House, remained skeptical. "I would hope that the first thing that would happen is that there would be an immediate change in the unfortunate habit of the controlled Palestinian press to both deny the Holocaust and denigrate it by casting aspersions on Israel as a Nazi state," he said.