Albright is expected to visit Middle East to push talks

U.S. favors having Clinton work with Barak, Arafat

January 20, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright will probably return to the Middle East next month to try to recharge Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. She may call on Syria, which has balked in its own negotiations with Israel, a senior Clinton administration official said yesterday.

There is "a good possibility" that Albright will confer with Middle Eastern leaders on the need for a "Camp David-style" summit between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the official said.

The Israelis and Palestinians face a self-imposed, ambitious Feb. 13 deadline for devising a "framework" for "final-status" talks on issues including the political future of Jerusalem and Palestinian demands for statehood.

U.S. officials have said Clinton might need to help craft the framework. As the deadline nears with little progress made, the chances for U.S. mediation are rising, foreign policy analysts say.

Arafat, who was due in Washington today to meet with Albright and Clinton, is unhappy that Barak delayed the transfer of another 6.1 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian control. The handover was supposed to take place today, but Barak said he needed to delay it to focus on peace talks with Syria.

Besides letting Albright tend to the Palestinian track of the peace process, a Middle East trip could address the concerns of Syrian President Hafez el Assad. His government has accused Israel of dragging its heels in negotiations to withdraw from the Golan Heights.

Syrian-Israeli peace talks that were supposed to have resumed in the United States this week were postponed after Syria voiced reservations about returning to the table. Clinton spoke with Assad by telephone Tuesday.

A visit to Syria by Albright might smooth the way for resumed talks, analysts said. If Albright went to the region without stopping in Damascus, that might be perceived as a slight to Assad, a Middle Eastern expert said.

"The chances of her not going to Syria are pretty slim," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "I don't think a visit by the secretary is going to solve it one way or the other, but it will play a role."

Clinton said yesterday that he is "quite hopeful" for Israeli-Syrian negotiations. "I would not say the gaps in the positions are 90 percent," he said. "I'd say they're much closer to 10 percent."

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