JERUSALEM -- U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright intervened in a stalemate over a revised Middle East peace agreement yesterday by urging Israelis and Palestinians to work out their differences over the emotional issue of Palestinian prisoner releases.
Albright was to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak after her arrival in Israel last night from the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, where she and other dignitaries had hoped to witness the signing of a new agreement to implement the U.S.-brokered Wye River Memorandum.
But the deal, though close, had not been closed.
Albright spoke to Barak by phone from Egypt and then delayed her flight to Israel to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
"We know the road to true peace remains hard and uphill," she said.
"The opportunity now to reach important new agreements has been a long time in coming, but it is has arrived and we must seize it."
The monthlong talks to revise the Wye River pact signed by Israel and the Palestinians in Maryland in October ended in a deadlock Wednesday, as Israel and the Palestinians held their ground on two key issues -- the release of Palestinian prisoners and the timetable for the resumption of crucial final status talks intended to resolve the thorniest problems of the peace process.
Israel's release of Palestinian prisoners is a politically potent issue for both sides.
Groups supporting the Israeli victims of terrorist attacks have run newspaper ads denouncing the release of prisoners with blood on their hands.
Although Barak has refused to free killers of Israelis, one ad taunted, "The killers of Jews are punished everywhere in the world -- only in the State of Israel are the murderers of Jews set free."
The Wye agreement called for the release of 750 Palestinian prisoners held by the Israelis.
But the government of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu freed only 98 political prisoners in the first release of 250 inmates, causing an uproar in the Palestinian community.
The home of Arafat's deputy was stoned at the time.
Palestinians consider their imprisoned sons heroes for fighting against the Israeli occupation.
They find it unacceptable that their sons are languishing in jail while the men who directed them -- including no less than Arafat himself -- are now Palestinian VIPs negotiating with Israel.
Palestinians have complained that the dividends of peace have eluded them. Assuring the return of 750 prisoners was a tangible benefit Arafat thought he could deliver. In this round of prisoner releases, Arafat wants 400 freed, but the Israelis have committed to only 350.
"At the time when Arafat is not able to make tangible achievements in the peace process, he's trying to make it up in terms of the public support by making some achievement in releasing prisoners," said Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political analyst.
The Wye agreement, which implements commitments from previous peace accords, required that at least 13 percent of West Bank land be returned to the Palestinians.
The agreement was suspended in December by Netanyahu, who complained that the Palestinians weren't upholding their pledge to fight terrorism.
Barak campaigned to defeat Netanyahu on a pledge to revive the stalled peace process. He formed a broad-based government to assure movement on the peace front.
Focus on peace initiative
Since he took office, Barak has focused on the peace initiative. Revising Wye was his first task.
After four weeks of talks, Israelis and Palestinians predicted earlier this week that an agreement was at hand. Then the talks ground to a halt Wednesday.
Israel had agreed to release 350 Palestinian political prisoners and said it could free no more. It was up to the Palestinians to accept or reject the offer.
Arafat flew to Alexandria as did his two chief negotiators, hoping for a deal that would be signed there. Barak stayed home.
The prime minister "will go when he has a reason to go," a spokesman said. Barak ordered his chief negotiator, Gilead Sher, not to talk to his Palestinian counterpart.
Yesterday, while attending a Labor Party meeting, Barak said a final deal depends on the other side.
"Our hand will be stretched out to [achieve] a peace of the brave, and we are willing to go towards it," he said.
Two days ago, Barak was unwilling to wait for Albright's arrival to finish the deal. But last evening, according to Albright, his negotiators were back at work.
"The opportunity now to reach an important new agreement has been a long time in coming but it has arrived and we must seize it," Albright said at a news conference in Alexandria.
"But to succeed, everyone with a stake in peace must do their part. Encouraging them to do so is why I have come to the Middle East."
On to Damascus
Albright heads to Damascus tomorrow. Syria is the power broker in Israel's protracted guerrilla war in south Lebanon. Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas are battling Israeli soldiers in a security zone established by the Jewish state to protect its northern border from attacks from Lebanon. Barak has pledged to withdraw from Lebanon in a year.
In Syria she will see President Hafez Assad, who is no easy figure to deal with in the Middle East.
Her hope is to persuade Assad to resume negotiations with Israel over the disputed Golan Heights, a mountain range occupied by Israel since its victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Talks broke down more than three years ago.
Pub Date: 9/03/99