Albright Lectures Netanyahu, Arafat
By Lee Hockstader and Barton Gellman
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright privately scolded Israeli and Palestinian leaders today, telling them that she is "sick and tired" of their intransigence and that it imperils the entire Middle East peace process.
In separate meetings, she told Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that she is fed up with finger-pointing as a substitute for the hard decisions needed to break an 11-month deadlock in peace talks, according to a senior U.S. official with direct knowledge of the conversations.
"They were coming back with all their reasons why they couldn't do that," the official said. "In both cases, separately, she said, `I am sick and tired of hearing you give me a pile full of complaints about the other guy, and that is not going to help us get to the point where we can make tough decisions.' "
Albright's strong signal of impatience, conveyed to reporters on condition of anonymity and accompanied by blunt public statements along similar lines, marked a new step in the Clinton administration's campaign to bridge wide gaps between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
After four hours of talks with Netanyahu Saturday that stretched into the early morning, and two hours with Arafat today, Albright issued a pessimistic assessment of the state of Middle East peace.
"We have been stalled at this point in the peace process, negotiating the same issues for a long time frankly, far too long," she said at a news conference before leaving Israel for Kuwait. "There is far too much at stake for this to go on. . . . The current stalemate, which has lasted for more than a year now, is eroding [previous] gains and threatening the entire process."
Although most of her talks with the two leaders focused on the stalled peace process, Albright was able to announce only a modest step forward: Both sides agreed to send envoys to Washington for further negotiations next week.
Talks between the two sides have made no real progress since last March, but there was some hope they had been nudged forward in Washington last month when President Clinton met separately with Netanyahu and Arafat.
But Albright's pique, and her apparent failure to budge the negotiations today, suggests that Clinton's proposal for a step-by-step Israeli troop withdrawal from areas of the West Bank as well as Palestinian moves to crack down on terrorists and improve security has made little headway.
Acknowledging she had hoped for more progress in this trip, Albright said: "It is no longer enough to simply talk about wanting peace. It is time to make the difficult decisions and exercise the leadership necessary to achieve it."
Netanyahu, in remarks to American Orthodox Jewish leaders after he met with Albright, acknowledged the lack of progress but continued the finger-pointing. "Israel is fulfilling its commitments, and the other side is violating its commitments," he said.
Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator, said Arafat also laid the blame squarely at Israel's feet in his meeting with Albright in Ramallah on the West Bank. He told her that "the only way to revive the peace process" is for Israel to withdraw its troops from a large portion of the West Bank, in compliance with past agreements.
Palestinians currently exercise limited autonomy over 27 percent of the West Bank an area roughly the size of Delaware that was captured by Israel from Jordan in 1967. They want an Israeli withdrawal from an additional 30 percent of the territory, but Netanyahu has offered just 9 percent, contingent on the Palestinians meeting a long list of conditions.
Clinton reportedly proposed a phased Israeli withdrawal from 12 percent of the West Bank lands, broken into several parts and beginning immediately with about 4 percent of the territory. Future pullbacks would depend on Palestinian moves to guarantee Israel's security, further steps to remove language calling for Israel's destruction from the Palestinians' national charter and other concessions.
While Israel insists on discussing only one pullback before proceeding to final talks on a permanent peace settlement, the Palestinians want Israel to live up to its past promises by offering yet another withdrawal. Palestinian officials said Albright had proposed an "insignificant" phased Israeli pullback today.
In addition to the peace process, Albright and Netanyahu also discussed the mounting dispute over Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's refusal to allow U.N. arms inspectors to work freely in his country in accordance with Security Council resolutions. Seeking to reassure Israelis who are wary that a U.S. attack on Iraq could trigger Iraqi retaliation against the Jewish state, as it did in 1991, Albright declared:
"There may be differences between us about how to pursue Middle East peace, but let me say this directly to the Israeli people: Nothing will ever shake the iron-clad commitment of the United States when it comes to the security of Israel."
Quick as it was, Albright's overnight stopover here was regarded as a critical opportunity to breathe life into the comatose Middle East peace process. In recent months, progress toward a permanent settlement between Jews and Palestinians has all but ground to a halt, with the only apparent sign of movement, albeit nearly imperceptible, coming in the presence of aggressive American mediation.
Washington is now not only chief sponsor of the peace process but its active guarantor, promising both sides it will see that commitments by the other are fulfilled and, as a result, imperiling its relations with both Jews and Palestinians.
"The Americans went into this with a clear head and understood it was liable to be detrimental to American relations with both sides," said Joseph Alpher, director of the Jerusalem office of the American Jewish Committee. "But [they also understood] that if they didn't do it, there would be no peace process at all and that would be detrimental to U.S. interests."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company