Albright practices public diplomacy New secretary talks straight to the people

September 13, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- As America's top diplomat, Madeleine K. Albright has changed the boundaries of conventional diplomacy.

In her first trip to the Middle East as secretary of state, Albright chose to talk to more than prime ministers and political leaders. She consoled the hospitalized victims of a suicide bombing. She listened to Palestinian teen-agers describe the humiliation heaped on them at Israeli checkpoints. She empathized with the mothers of missing Israeli soldiers.

In a school auditorium filled with Arab and Jewish teens and in a live radio address to Palestinians across the West Bank, Albright shared her views on the troubled Middle East peace process and the steps needed to bring peace to this divided land.

Unlike the secretaries of state who preceded her, Albright, 60, has appealed directly to the public, whether in a village in Bosnia or at a women's college in North Carolina.

"She feels one of her unique qualities is to communicate clearly complicated foreign policy concepts," said James P. Rubin, the secretary's spokesman. "The best way to do that is to go straight to the people involved and explain the stakes. In this case, she feels strongly the people of Israel and the Palestinian authority believe in the promise of peace. It is they who need to hear what the options are, what the consequences are."

Her style may at times seem more characteristic of a politician than a diplomat. But it is strategy honed over a 20-year career in foreign policy. She used it as a university professor, the president of a research organization and ambassador to the United Nations.

Power of symbolism

This diplomat understands the symbolism of wearing a classic Palestinian-embroidered scarf to visit Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. She also feels comfortable, as the mother of three daughters, teasing an Israeli teen about her green-dyed hair.

"You always hear about these high-level political people, but you can never get close to them. It was very special to know that she cared to come to visit," said Daniel Miller, a hospitalized bomb victim Albright met on her first day in Israel.

But the realities of the political conflict here can rattle a seasoned diplomat.

When Albright stopped alongside Miller's bed, the 19-year-old native Miamian wanted to tell her to be tough on Palestinian leader Arafat. He began by saying, "When you embrace Arafat "

But, he said, the secretary interrupted him: "I don't intend to embrace Arafat."

Albright's appearances -- broadcast in prime-time television spots and featured in the country's major newspapers -- are part of an overall strategy to influence political leaders and achieve the United States' foreign policy goals in the region, according to American officials close to her.

"She has an acute understanding that leaders lead and sometimes they are led by their people," said one official, "that leaders are very attuned to the needs and desires of the people they are trying to lead."

For example, throughout her visit here, Albright stressed the close relationship between the United States and Israel. She emphasized the two peoples' shared values and unapologetically identified with the Israelis' concern for security.

'We are with you'

"I arrived with a straightforward message from President Clinton and from the American people," Albright said soon after her arrival. "We are with you in the battle against terror and the struggle for security. We are with you in demanding that those who orchestrated the murder of innocent people in the marketplace and mall be tracked down and punished."

When her own past provided an opportunity to identify with the Israelis, she used it.

"I still remember clearly sitting in a bomb shelter during the Nazi siege of London," Albright told a packed auditorium of Israelis on the day she paid an emotional visit to Israel's memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

Although many Palestinians accused her of siding with Israel, Albright took the Jewish state to task for humiliating Palestinians. She pointedly told Israeli leaders to take a "time out" on actions the Palestinians find provocative, specifically the expansion of Jewish settlements on lands the Palestinians hope may one day constitute their own state.

Toughest audience

Albright faced her toughest audience yesterday when she visited Palestinians at a Quaker-run school in the West Bank town of Ramallah. The Palestinian teen-agers described life under Israeli occupation and asked pointed questions of the secretary of state.

"Mrs. Albright, put yourself in our place. Someone has taken your land, demolished your homes, put your children in prison, closed down your schools, humiliated your parents in front of you, punished you for the actions of others," said Fady Qadoura, 17. "What would you do in this situation?"

"Why can't Jerusalem be shared?" asked Jaffa Alzeban, 17.

Avoiding specifics

Albright did not respond to these specifics. To do so might have crippled her diplomatic mission even more. She talked of the "crisis in confidence" between the two sides. She reiterated her demand that Palestinians relentlessly fight terrorism. She talked about the need to go to final status talks, the negotiations on the thorniest issues that she hopes will bring the peace process to a just and final end. She spoke about policy issues.

"I hope your voices will be heard and you will grow up in a region where you don't have to fear for your lives and you will be able to move freely," Albright said in conclusion.

But in the end, the teen-agers felt they hadn't been heard at all.

"She wasn't talking to us," said Alzeban. "She was giving a speech to the media because she didn't answer our questions directly."

Pub Date: 9/13/97

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