Albright gently prods Israelis and Palestinians Secretary of state, aides tackle 'unpredictable and dangerous' situation

April 11, 1997|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright prodded Israel and Palestinians yesterday to make concessions to rescue the Middle East peace process but avoided imposing the pressure that some experts and diplomats think is necessary.

In a speech to newspaper editors, Albright urged Palestinians to assure Israelis that "terror will not be used against them as a means of leverage in negotiations."

But she also tacitly admonished Israel to refrain from building new Jewish settlements in disputed areas, saying, "Palestinians must see that Israelis are not taking unilateral actions on issues that are reserved for permanent negotiations."

The remarks came before Albright and her top aides plunged into an afternoon of crisis management in an effort to ease what she called "an unpredictable and dangerous" situation.

After an 80-minute meeting between Albright and two top Palestinian officials, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the peace process was still at an "impasse," but he noted signs of progress.

Burns said Israelis and Palestinians had resumed security cooperation and Palestinians were "taking steps to thwart terrorism." But he called for "a sustained period of cooperation."

The meetings this week marked Albright's deepest involvement to date in Middle East policy, an area that preoccupied her predecessors but one in which she was not expected to concentrate her energy.

She and President Clinton both stressed, however, that the main roles in restarting the peace process must be assumed by Israelis and Palestinians themselves.

"The stakes are high," she told the American Society of Newspaper Editors, meeting in Washington. "And we will do our utmost to get this process back on track. At the same time, the parties must do their share and make the decisions that are required to restore faith in the negotiating process and in one another."

To some observers, this approach was too modest.

"She's using the velvet glove hoping they get the message," said Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The same amount of energy is used whether you get sucked in because of events or you use the full power of the United States," she said. "It's time for American ideas. If you call it imposing, so be it."

The absence of a firm American role has opened the way for Europeans to try to assert themselves in the process. Palestinians have cheered the move, believing Europeans to be more sympathetic than Americans to their cause.

The violent clashes and suicide bombings that have plunged the peace process into crisis followed groundbreaking by Israel on 6,500 housing units on a hillside at the edge of Jerusalem.

The Clinton administration has been critical of the project but has refrained from publicly demanding that it be frozen. Similarly, the administration has not repeated Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's contention that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had given a "green light" to terrorism.

The visit by the two Palestinian officials, Saeb Erekat and Abu Mazen, followed a visit to Washington Monday by Netanyahu. He failed to win Clinton's support for shifting the peace process to "fast-track" negotiations on the most sensitive issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians.

"We agreed 100 percent peace and violence cannot go together," Erekat said. "As Palestinians, we cannot condone the killing of Israelis."

Erekat, speaking to reporters outside the State Department, indicated that Palestinians were willing to begin fast-track negotiations on the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian statehood, settlements and refugees.

But he insisted that Israel not be allowed to halt its implementation of existing agreements, including withdrawal from West Bank territory.

Burns said the Palestinian officials would meet again today with Dennis Ross, the administration's Middle East coordinator.

Pub Date: 4/11/97

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