President Clinton yesterday welcomed the news that Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak has formed a new, broad-based coalition government, saying that "the time is ripe" for progress in long-stalled Arab-Israeli peace talks.
Appearing at a news conference with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Clinton predicted that the new Israeli government, which includes secular as well as ultra-Orthodox religious parties, would enjoy far more "freedom of movement" than the narrow governing majority of outgoing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
"Once again, we have a real chance to move the peace process forward in the Middle East," Clinton said, noting that Barak "has constituted a government on quite a broad base."
Clinton's upbeat assessment was echoed by Mubarak, a close U.S. ally who last year skipped his annual sojourn to Washington because, Egyptian officials said, he saw no point in discussing the peace process so long as Netanyahu and his conservative Likud Party remained in power.
Egypt was the first Arab state to make peace with Israel and, since Barak's landslide victory in May, has made clear its eagerness to resume its central role in the peace process, U.S. officials say. On Wednesday, Barak reached agreement with the leaders of rival secular and religious parties on a new coalition that will enjoy a solid majority in the Israeli Knesset and is broadly supportive of peace negotiations, despite sharp differences on domestic issues.
"Unfortunately, valuable time has been wasted," Mubarak said in assessing the state of the peace process during the three years since Netanyahu was elected. "Today, there is an opportunity which should not be missed."
Clinton and Mubarak both urged the new Israeli government to refrain from building new Jewish settlements in the West Bank and to implement last year's Wye River accord, under which Netanyahu agreed to withdraw Israeli troops from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank.
Beyond that, however, neither leader offered any concrete suggestions as to how Barak should restart stalled negotiations with the Palestinians and with Syria and Lebanon. Clinton said he would reserve judgment on such matters until he has met with Barak, who is expected to travel to Washington within the next few weeks.
In an interview earlier this week, a senior administration official cautioned against the "very high expectations" surrounding the new Israeli leader, a much-decorated former general and protege of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians and initiated negotiations with Syria.
Caution is especially prudent, the official said, as Israel and the Palestinians prepare to reopen "final status" talks that turn on such momentous issues as the future of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinians to return to the homes they lost in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
On the other hand, U.S. officials have been strongly encouraged by statements from Syrian President Hafez Assad -- conveyed through Jordan's King Abdullah and publicly in an interview with the Arab-language daily Al-Hayat -- expressing eagerness to resume talks on the future of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967.
Syria demands that Israel withdraw from the Golan in return for full peace and normal relations. In the meantime, Damascus continues to support Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim guerrillas fighting to oust Israeli troops from the strip of land they occupy in southern Lebanon as a buffer against cross-border attacks.
Barak's campaign promise that he would seek to withdraw Israeli forces from Lebanon within a year has prompted speculation that he will pursue a settlement with Syria first. Both Clinton and Mubarak, however, said there is no reason that Israel cannot negotiate simultaneously with the Palestinians and with Syria.
"It would be a mistake to assume that movement should be confined to one track at a time," Mubarak said.
Notwithstanding Egypt's status in Washington as a key "strategic partner," human rights organizations have grown increasingly critical of Mubarak's government, most recently over new restrictions on Egyptian journalists and nongovernmental organizations. In part to address such concerns, Mubarak has devoted much of his six-day visit -- he leaves town today -- to Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have expressed particular concern over Egypt's treatment of its Coptic Christian minority.
A senior administration official said that Clinton had raised human rights concerns, including the question of the Copts, during his private hour-long session with Mubarak yesterday.
In general, however, administration officials have avoided any public criticism of Egypt's human rights record. Clinton said at his news conference yesterday that "civil society has grown" under Mubarak, 71, a former Air Force officer who has ruled Egypt under emergency laws since Islamic extremists gunned down then-President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
On the subject of peace negotiations, Clinton said his reading of Israeli politics has convinced him that progress could come swiftly. Under Netanyahu, he said, the governing "majority was so small, and included people who were so hostile to the peace process, that no matter what he tried to do they could always threaten to bring him down." Moreover, he said, Barak was "a much more open and heartfelt supporter of the Oslo process."
CAPTION: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and President Clinton exchange jokes at news conference. Mubarak echoed upbeat assessment of new Israeli government.