Describing Israel’s agreement to withdraw from most of the West Bank city of Hebron as having brought “a renewed sense of promise in the Middle East,” President Clinton met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday and urged the resumption of negotiations between Israel and Syria.
The more than three hours of talks between the two leaders produced no breakthrough proposals. But the White House meeting itself rewarded Netanyahu for his commitment to the peace effort begun by his predecessors and signified that his relations with the Clinton administration were back on track, unmarred by the disagreements that marked his previous three visits.
Netanyahu, appearing at a joint news conference with Clinton, praised him as “an exceptional friend of Israel.”
One of the thorniest questions now facing the two men is how to draw Syria into the regional peace effort. While both leaders declined to spell out their proposals, Clinton said he was encouraged that there were ideas “worth working on.”
Netanyahu suggested that as a gesture of good faith, Syria could rein in gunmen from Hezbollah, or Party of God, in southern Lebanon. He said that Israel would not withdraw from southern Lebanon until “we could have somebody dismantle the Hezbollah military capacity in the south of the country and take up the slack.” He added, “Preferably it should be the Lebanese army.”
Netanyahu is the first in a series of Middle East leaders scheduled to visit the White House in the next month as the Clinton administration, building on last month’s Israeli-Palestinian agreement on Hebron, tries to continue the momentum for a comprehensive Middle East peace.
Netanyahu will be followed by the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan.
Clinton and Netanyahu seemed relaxed and optimistic when they appeared before the press, smiling as they strode into the East Room of the White House.
The mood was strikingly different from the one at the two men’s last meeting four months ago, when Clinton convened emergency two-day summit talks that brought the Israeli leader together with Arafat and King Hussein.
The tense emergency session failed to resolve any of the differences between the Israelis and Palestinians, but it produced an agreement for further talks. And last month, after three and a half months of negotiations and recriminations, Netanyahu and Arafat finally sealed the long-delayed deal on a partial Israeli withdrawal from Hebron.
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