Albright's mission to Middle East gains urgency Security tops concerns, but U.S. is cautious about chances of reviving talks

September 05, 1997|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton said that yesterday's Jerusalem bombing made Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright's mission to the Middle East next week "all the more important," but officials backed away from hopes of injecting new momentum into the peace process.

Clinton and other officials made clear that Israel's security fears would dominate Albright's agenda when she meets with Israeli and Palestinian leaders during her first trip to the region as

secretary of state. Previously, they had spoken of launching ambitious negotiations on the toughest issues separating the two sides.

There has been no progress in negotiations since the United States brokered a pact for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the volatile West Bank city of Hebron in January. Talks between Israel and Syria broke down months earlier.

"The peace process can only move forward in a secure environment," Clinton told reporters in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., where he is vacationing.

Clinton condemned yesterday's suicide attack, saying that the bombers were trying to kill not only innocent people but the peace process.

The president said Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, "through concrete actions on its own and continuing work with the Israeli authorities, must do all it can to create an environment that leaves no doubt that terror will not be tolerated. This is the message that Secretary Albright will emphasize when she travels to the region next week."

The administration had said Albright would go to the Mideast only if she saw progress in the fight against terrorism.

Israelis had blamed a lax Palestinian security atmosphere for contributing to the July 30 suicide bombing at a Jerusalem market that killed 17 people, including the two bombers, and wounded more than 80.

Dennis Ross, the administration's Mideast coordinator, was sent the area and devised a three-way arrangement whereby Israeli and Palestinian security officials would exchange information with the Central Intelligence Agency's station chief in Tel Aviv. Last Friday, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said there was "a trend in the right direction."

In the wake of yesterday's bombing, Albright issued a statement sternly critical of the Palestinians, saying while some progress had been made, "much more needs to be done. Fighting terror is a 24-hour-a-day job. Security cooperation must be accompanied unilateral Palestinian action to pre-empt terror, destroy infrastructure as well as to create a political climate where there is no tolerance for terror."

Referring to the militant Islamist group Hamas, which claimed responsibility for yesterday's bombing and the one July 30, Clinton said: "Hamas and the other terrorists, they thrive on anger and anxiety, and uncertainty, in being able to inject their murderers into this situation."

The administration's goal this year in the Mideast was a comprehensive peace package. But ties between the Palestinian authority and Israel's conservative Likud government deteriorated in a series of disputes involving Palestinian terrorism and Jewish settlements in occupied territory.

U.S. officials decided earlier this summer to assume a stronger role in trying to mediate the peace process. In a speech Aug. 6, Albright called for accelerating negotiations on the status of Jerusalem, borders, refugees, settlements and the question of Palestinian statehood.

Such an acceleration had earlier been proposed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But unlike Netanyahu, Albright wanted to combine these talks with continued Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank called for in the 1993 Oslo agreement.

Even before yesterday's bombing, officials had lowered expectations of progress.

While refusing to exert overt pressure on Israel, officials had said that Albright planned to present Israelis and Palestinians with a "reality check," informing them of compromises that would be necessary to restart the peace process.

Yesterday, however, a State Department spokesman demurred when asked if Albright planned to push the same negotiating stance. "I'm not in a position today to describe her agenda," said James Foley.

BTC Pub Date: 9/05/97

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