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Citing Terrorism, Netanyahu Rejects U.S. Call to Withdraw Hebron Forces

By Michael Dobbs and Peter Baker
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday rejected calls by the Clinton administration to pull Israeli troops out of Arab-populated areas of the West Bank town of Hebron, while expressing optimism that a formula will soon be found to permit the resumption of peace talks with Syria.

Netanyahu's comments came at the end of a day of talks with senior administration officials in Washington, including President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher. U.S. leaders used the occasion to urge Israel to build on the "psychological breakthrough" represented by last Wednesday's first-ever meeting between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.

According to Israeli officials, Netanyahu resisted U.S. calls for a pullback from Hebron, arguing that such a step could create an "explosive" situation in the West Bank town that could damage the entire Middle East peace process. Israeli troops were required to pull back from Arab population centers in Hebron by last March, guarding only the 440 or so Jews in the town.

After his meeting with Clinton, Netanyahu described the Jewish community in Hebron as the "oldest in the world," dating back 3,500 years. He said he told Christopher that improving security in the town was "not only an Israeli interest but (also) a Palestinian interest."

Israeli officials said that the main purpose of Monday's round of talks in Washington was to work on a formula for the resumption of direct talks between Israel and Syria, which were suspended in May following bomb attacks in Jersusalem on Israeli buses.

The new Israeli government is ready to resume the talks but is refusing to commit itself to the land-for-peace formula embraced by former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

During the Israeli election campaign, Netanyahu repeatedly denounced the idea of trading away the Golan Heights for peace with Syria and said that Israel's security would be undermined by giving Palestinians control of most of the West Bank. The area belonged to Syria until 1967, when it was seized by Israel during the Six-Day war.