The Reluctant Peacemaker

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WASHINGTON, D.C.: Fresh from his tepid handshake with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked President Clinton for help in forging a peace with Syria during an hour-long Oval Office meeting Monday afternoon, telling reporters "the United States fully understands our position." That position is awkward. As the new player at the peace table, Netanyahu is finding it difficult to carve himself a different road to peace with his neighbors. He is determined to live up to his campaign vow to give paramount priority to Israeli security, while also carrying forward his predecessor's unfinished negotiations, some terms of which Netanyahu rejects outright. While he strengthened his hand somewhat simply through the symbolism of meeting with Clinton, whose treatment of him has been somewhat chilly, rumors preceeded Netanyahu to Washington that the U.S. had demanded the handshake with Arafat as a condition of the Oval Office chat. Armed with Clinton's promise to help reopen peace talks with Syria, in part through a continuation of Secretary of State Christopher's shuttle diplomacy, Netanyahu appealed to Damascus Monday to remain flexible. While Netanyahu's predecessor Peres had indicated a willingness to go along with Syria's demand that Israel commit itself to withdrawing from the Golan Heights as part of any peace agreement, the new Prime Minister has firmly rejected the idea, but still seeks a path toward peace. "Like us, the United States wants the talks resumed," Netanyahu said in Washington. "I don't know if Syria wants it. We are looking for a solution in words." TIME State Department correspondent Dean Fischer notes that from the U.S. point of view, Netanyahu's problems are of his own making: "The Israelis have said everything is negotiable, but they are unwilling to pick up negotiations where the previous government left off. Netanyahu wants to go back to square one. The Syrians are saying, No thanks." The real question is not what it will take to make peace between Israel and Syria, but whether either side really wants to do what it takes to get there. -->