U.S. urges Israelis, Palestinians to focus on opening for peace

Talks to restart today

developments in Syria, Lebanon alter dynamics

June 13, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With peace talks between Palestinian and Israeli officials set to resume today, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright implored the negotiators not to let the death of President Hafez el Assad of Syria cause a "historic opportunity" to "slip away."

Just before her departure to Syria for Assad's funeral, Albright tried yesterday to keep the pressure on Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to jump-start the stalled talks on a broad peace accord. The new round of the peace talks - the second in the United States this year - is coming at a trying time, when attention has been diverted to Syria and domestic pressures are occupying Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

But Clinton administration officials declared the moment a fleeting opportunity for change. Israel's recent pullout from South Lebanon, they noted, removed a major impediment to peace talks. Possible new elections in Israel and a changing administration in Washington could halt all talks indefinitely if they are not completed by early fall, administration officials and Middle East experts believe

Assad's "passing doesn't alter the compelling logic of all parties to pursue a comprehensive peace, nor America's willingness to work with all parties to achieve that goal," Albright said. "He could have no better legacy than a settlement that brings lasting stability and steadily rising prosperity to people throughout the region."

Israeli negotiators will meet with a Palestinian team at Andrews and Bolling Air Force bases in Maryland and Washington, D.C., respectively. The hope is to make some progress on the three remaining sticking points that are blocking a comprehensive peace accord: the boundaries of a Palestinian state, the future status of Jerusalem, and the return of Palestinian refugees what is now the Gaza Strip and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, is scheduled to meet with President Clinton on Thursday to determine whether enough progress has been made to warrant a high-stakes summit between Arafat, Barak and Clinton this summer. All parties are laboring under a self-imposed deadline of Sept. 13, when an accord on so-called "final status" issues is supposed to be concluded.

Mindful of appearing too pushy, administration officials stressed that the deadline had been set by the Israelis and Palestinians, not by Clinton.

"The United States is not the one setting the pace here," Albright said. "We are responding to requests to move the process forward, and clearly, there are dates that have been set."

A truly comprehensive settlement, involving Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinians, now appears far away. White House officials conceded yesterday that Assad's death has placed the prospects of an Israeli-Syrian peace accord on hold, as Syria moves toward new leadership. And no agreement with Lebanon can be reached without the acceptance of that country's overlord, Syria.

But the suspension of those talks should "lend a sense of urgency" to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, P. J. Crowley, a White House spokesman, said yesterday.

Administration officials played down any talk of an imminent breakthrough. Both Albright and Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, will be in Syria today for Assad's funeral, depriving the talks of some heft.

The goal of these "expert-level" negotiations is merely to isolate key issues to bring to the attention of Arafat and Barak, Crowley said. Still, administration officials - mindful not only of a critical moment in the Middle East but also of Clinton's place in history - were keeping on the pressure.

"The United States believes that a historic opportunity exists to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Albright said. "The issues are difficult and complex and will take time to resolve. But both Prime Minister Barak and Arafat understand that this opportunity must not slip away."

While Assad's death will be a distraction, it could quickly turn into a positive force for negotiations, said Scott Lasensky, an analyst of Middle Eastern affairs at the Brookings Institution. The Israelis always had trouble operating on two separate negotiating tracks, one with the Syrians, the other with the Palestinians.

Assad's death "will be liberating for the process," Lasensky said. "It clarified things. It adds focus again."

On the other hand, Barak lost a key diplomatic foil, said Thomas R. Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum, a research institute focused on the peace process. The prime minister was adept at playing up the rivalry between Assad and Arafat, neither of whom wanted the other's negotiations to get too far ahead.

Still, death may "focus Arafat's mind a bit," Smerling added.

"Time ran out for Assad, and time is running out for Arafat," he said. "He wants to go down in history as the man who won a Palestinian state and international recognition for his people. He doesn't want to go down as a man who got stuck and couldn't get the job done."

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