Clinton, Netanyahu Extend Talks, But Progress Not Clear

President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met late into the night Tuesday in 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 like “cordial” and “friendly” to describe the drawn-out meeting - the sixth between the two leaders but the first since November, when the president pointedly refused to meet Netanyahu 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 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 freeze construction of Jewish settlements in disputed territory. The U.S. position also calls for the Palestinians to make “100 percent 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 while urging Clinton to press the items requiring Palestinian steps in talks, scheduled for Thursday, with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

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 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 today, shortly after the Palestinian leader arrives in Washington.

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