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Bill Clinton has an Arkansan's aversion to formality. The German Chancellor's name is Helmut, the French President goes by Jacques, and Russia's leader answers to Boris. But when the new Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, paid a visit to Washington last week, Clinton ushered him into the Oval Office with a studied "Welcome to the White House, Mr. Prime Minister." In fact, over the course of a nearly two-hour private meeting, the President never once called Netanyahu "Bibi," as he is universally known in Israel. And rather than refer to his counterpart as "Bill," Netanyahu stuck to "Mr. President."

Given the level of tension that filled the room, the formality seemed appropriate. Seeking to bolster their man's gravitas at home, the Prime Minister's aides asked the Americans not to call Netanyahu by his nickname. But the tone of the meeting, the first between the two since Netanyahu defeated Shimon Peres and became Prime Minister in late May, was destined to be cool however they addressed each other. The Clinton Administration had openly favored the Labor Party's Peres as the peace-seeking heir to the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin. And Netanyahu, head of Likud, had campaigned on opposition to Labor's penchant, as he saw it, to sacrifice security for a vision of peace. Now both Clinton and Netanyahu wanted to prove to their home audiences that each could do business with the other. But the past kept getting in the way.

The President had wept openly over Rabin's death and had heaped praise on Peres, sincere emotions coiled tightly around one of Clinton's most important foreign policies. In the First Family's quarters, evidence of those powerful feelings rests on a side table; it is a photo of a private moment between Clinton and Rabin. The photographer was Tipper Gore, the Vice President's wife, who gave it to the President after Rabin's death with the inscription, "I know how much he meant to you."

That kind of easy intimacy was nowhere in evidence in the President's private session with Netanyahu last week. Clinton and Netanyahu sat down in the two golden wing chairs across from the President's desk, and everyone else left the room. Fifteen minutes later, when Secretary of State Warren Christopher and two notetakers, an American and an Israeli, returned, the two leaders had dispensed with small talk and were already deeply engrossed in a discussion about the status of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Meant to last an hour, the Oval Office session went so far beyond schedule that the coterie of aides waiting outside was told to start lunch without the principals. But even with the extra time, Netanyahu was no less rigid in private than he would be that afternoon in public. In explaining his positions to Clinton--no to Palestinian statehood, no to returning the Golan Heights to Syria, no to any notion of sharing sovereignty over Jerusalem with the Arabs--the Prime Minister offered no concessions. The disappointment among Clinton's aides was palpable: while they hadn't expected Netanyahu to metamorphose into a willing peacemaker, the U.S. officials were disturbed by his refusal to adapt his ideologically driven campaign rhetoric to the practical realities of governing. "We were hoping to sit down with him and find some daylight, an opening to look to," said a dejected aide to the President. "And that didn't happen."

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