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Netanyahu hints at West Bank agreement

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged from a meeting Friday with Vice President Al Gore and intimated he might meet the Palestinians halfway in their dispute over Israel's next troop pullback in the West Bank.

The Clinton administration has been proposing a withdrawal of about 13 percent, and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has agreed to that, though he wanted much more. Netanyahu has been insisting on 9 percent.

With U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright scheduled to meet separately with Netanyahu and Arafat in London on Monday, Netanyahu insisted both sides would have to give for a compromise to be reached. If they split the difference, that would be about 11 percent.

"My optimism tells me that I hope that we'll have an agreement in London," Netanyahu told reporters with Gore at his side. "My realism tells me in order for that to be achieved there'd have to be a considerable stretching still."

While he did not specify what that meant, Israeli officials have suggested in the past week that Israel might consider ceding 10.5 to 10.8 percent in a further troop redeployment.

Right-wing members of the Cabinet quietly have complained that the army has drawn up maps showing the security implications of a pullback of 11 to 13 percent.

While Gore's visit was mainly to emphasize U.S. support for Israel as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence, the vice president said he also discussed the peace process generally with Netanyahu.

The prime minister warned in recent days that Israel will not allow the United States to dictate decisions on its security.

Referring to President Clinton's comment Thursday that the two sides are "much, much closer" to a compromise than they were a few months ago, Netanyahu said he agreed, but he added, "I hope there's stretching on all sides so that this optimism is vindicated."

For his part, Gore was evasive at the news conference on all questions relating to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

"This was not a negotiation and I am not a negotiator," Gore said, reiterating the Clinton administration's "ironclad commitment" to Israel's security.

Gore traveled later Friday to Saudi Arabia, where he met with King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah.

Gore was to return today to meet Arafat in the Palestinian-ruled West Bank town of Ramallah.

"We all know that at any time we have to be secure that we can defend the peace," Netanyahu said. "A peace that cannot be defended will not hold.

"And the determination of what Israel needs for its security, these are complex determinations that rightly _ the United States and Israel agree _ should be left in Israel's hands."

Gore added, "The negotiators have been meeting separately. They will continue to do so, and I think everyone anticipates a very meaningful set of discussions that will take place in London shortly."

Asked if the London meetings would be the end of the road if they failed to reach a breakthrough, Gore said that he hoped for progress but that the talks would continue regardless, noting: "The efforts to secure peace with security are never ending."

Gore also was asked about Israel's concerns over the transfer of Russian missile technology to Iran, and he vowed to pursue it with Russia's three newly appointed deputy prime ministers.

"This new Russian government may be one that we can make some progress with on important questions, including questions about technology exports."

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