U.S. tries to revive Mideast accords

Top Albright goal is to set timetable to fulfill Wye pact

August 30, 1999|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright leaves Wednesday on a mission to revive the Middle East peace process, trying to conjure the optimism and good will that flowed from Israeli elections in May but then quickly dried up.

Albright will visit Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Syria and Jordan, seeking progress not only on the West Bank, where Israel has stalled on yielding territory to the Palestinians, but also in the Golan Heights, the Syrian land captured by Israel in 1967 and key to a peace arrangement between Damascus and Jerusalem.

Analysts and diplomats say they are increasingly optimistic of success -- or at least success as it is gauged in the tortuous Mideast peace process.

Albright's main goal is a firm timetable for carrying out the Wye River agreement, reached between Palestinians and Israelis last year in Maryland. In December, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended the scheduled withdrawal of Israelis from the West Bank and other Wye promises, saying Palestinians had not done their part to stop violence against Israelis.

By the time Albright leaves Jordan on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is expected to agree to give Palestinians the promised territory by January in return for renewed security assurances.

An announcement by Albright, Barak, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is planned to take place in Egypt, diplomats said.

"Serious negotiations are going on now, and the Israelis are interested in getting it done as quickly as possible" under the pressure of Albright's arrival, an Israeli diplomat said. "Both sides are working on some sort of package deal. It's like all or nothing," involving every aspect of Wye as well as a foundation for further negotiations.

At the same time, Albright will try to nurture ties between Syria and Israel, where the perennial obstacle is Syrian President Hafez el Assad's demand that Israel return the strategically vital Golan Heights.

Though the exchanges between Syria and Israel have been more cordial than ever before, one analyst expects no formal announcements this week regarding Syria. In part, that is because Assad would not want to share the stage with Arafat to mark any breakthrough.

"I don't think Assad wants to find himself somehow under Arafat's shadow," said Kenneth Stein, a Middle East specialist at the Carter Center in Atlanta.

But even on the Palestinian side, handshakes aren't guaranteed. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators did agree last week on dates for territory turnover, safe passage for Palestinians between the separated West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the beginning of construction for a Gaza port -- all elements of Wye.

But a key sticking point is the release of hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli jails. Because of imprecise Wye language, the two sides have disagreed almost from the start over what types of people should be let go.

Last year, Israel freed 250 Palestinians, most of whom were petty criminals and not the so-called "political" prisoners Arafat had hoped for. Israel, for its part, has refused to release those it considers to be terrorists and murderers, and analysts say the prisoner issue threatens to mar Albright's trip.

One diplomat speculated that resolving the problem might require face-to-face negotiations between Barak and Arafat. Subordinates were handling most of the bargaining last week.

Albright's goal

Albright's visit, her first to the region since January, is intended to recharge the peace signals that glowed after Barak's election in May and then went dark. Barak campaigned by promising to implement Wye, and his formation of a diverse yet strong coalition government in early summer fueled hope that Israel would quickly evacuate the promised 13 percent of the Jordan River's West Bank.

But once elected, Barak asked Arafat to consider folding the implementation of Wye into much more ambitious "final status" talks on Palestinian sovereignty and land. Arafat refused. And as the Wye anniversary drew closer, blame and spite were the agreement's main products.

"While Barak came in with great gusto, I've been disappointed with his lack of action in the last few weeks," said John W. McDonald, a former State Department official and now chairman of the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy in Washington. "All Arafat's asking for is to do what was agreed at Wye -- and that is a perfectly reasonable position to be in."

Israel has expressed security concerns, citing continued violence by Palestinians and warning that safeguards for Israelis were a crucial precondition for Wye.

Albright's trip, which will continue to Vietnam and New Zealand after she leaves Jordan, gives her a new chance for a meaningful Middle East accomplishment. U.S. relations with Netanyahu, leader of Israel's conservative Likud bloc, were strained at best and went quickly downhill after he put the brakes on Wye.

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