September 9, 1997 in Nation/World

Albright’s Big Test What The Secretary Of State Says And Does On Her First Trip To The Mideast Will Be Scrutinized By Israelis And Palestinians Searching For Clues About American Intentions And Sympathies.

Marjorie Miller Los Angeles Times

As U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright makes her first trip to the Middle East Tuesday, the Arab-Israeli peace process is at a nadir and few here expect her visit to do any good.

Israeli peace agreements with the Palestinians hang by a thread, Israel’s war with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon is intensifying, and political observers see little chance for major advances between Israel and Syria.

Although Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat initiated a roundup of Islamic extremists on Monday, arresting about 30 suspected members of violent groups ahead of Albright’s visit, U.S. officials said the first item on her agenda is still to press him for greater security cooperation following two multiple suicide bombings in Jerusalem that have killed 20 Israelis since July 30.

The Palestinians have pinned renewed security cooperation on Israel’s willingness to keep commitments for further troop redeployments in the West Bank - a step Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he will not take unless the Palestinians come through with a sweeping crackdown.

“It will be very hard to find a formula to get out of this crisis,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University. “We’re no longer talking about the Oslo (peace) process per se or moving to final status negotiations but moving toward institutionalized conflict management.”

Underlining the difficulties, Israeli officials used the eve of Albright’s visit to press for the extradition of Palestinian Police Chief Ghazi Jabali, a close aide to Arafat whom they accuse of overseeing a group of Palestinian officers charged with shooting at Jewish settlers in the West Bank in July.

And Netanyahu spokesman David Bar-Illan dismissed the detention of suspected Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants as “Mickey Mouse arrests.” He said none of the Palestinians taken into custody was on the list of more than 200 people whose detention Israel is demanding.

“The point is whether they arrest the real big sharks,” Bar-Illan said, adding that they had not.

Israel has arrested about 100 suspected members of the violent groups. On Monday, a Jerusalem district court banned publication of details of the investigation into the July 30 bombing on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been unraveling since a previous wave of suicide bombings by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in February and March last year, which led to the defeat of the Labor government that had signed the landmark 1993 Oslo accords with Arafat and the election of Likud hardliner Netanyahu in May 1996.

Before the latest bombings, Albright reportedly had planned to use her visit to press both sides to carry out their outstanding obligations under interim peace agreements of 1995 and 1996. She intended to lean on Arafat for security cooperation and on Netanyahu to temporarily freeze construction on the East Jerusalem Har Homa project and other settlement expansion.

Now, Albright will arrive, as one well-informed political observer described it, “with a 2-by-4” for Arafat, to deliver the message that he must clamp down on the violent groups if he is to count on any more U.S. aid and support.

With criticism of Arafat and sympathy for Israel running high in the U.S. Congress, Albright cannot be seen at home to be putting pressure on Netanyahu. Several U.S. bills proposing a suspension of aid to the Palestinians are awaiting a vote in the next few weeks.

At the same time, Arab world leaders will be watching Albright for signs that the United States is willing to play the role of an evenhanded broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Palestinians are pushing for reciprocity.

“The only way to put the peace process back on track is to get Mr. Netanyahu to abide by the interim agreement on the basis of reciprocity,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said after returning from a preparatory trip to Washington.

Under the circumstances, U.S. officials have been working to dim expectations for the visit, as well as to temper the impression that Albright will be leaning heavily on Arafat.

“Obviously security issues will be very high on the agenda,” said a U.S. official who asked not to be identified. “But she also will put out a message of hope. The United States is engaged, and we’re determined to work on political issues as well. Security has to be first, but she also has to provide an incentive for Arafat. He has got to know what is down the road for him.”

Sam Lewis, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, concurred that “Arafat can’t be expected to accomplish much on security unless Netanyahu gives some hope.”

But a senior State Department official said in Washington that Albright is unlikely to offer radically new proposals. “We’ve had lots of ideas for a long period of time,” he said. “The ability to act on ideas in an environment like this is profoundly limited.”

Albright is to arrive in Israel on Wednesday morning and meet with Israeli officials throughout the day. She will travel to Jericho on Thursday to meet with Arafat and leave Friday for Syria. She is also scheduled to visit Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

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