Acceding to an Israeli request, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has postponed a trip to the Middle East that was scheduled to begin at the end of this week, Palestinian and Israeli officials said today.
Albright's decision comes in the midst of a dispute between Israel and the Palestinians over Prime Minister Ehud Barak's proposal to delay yet again an Israeli troop pullback from the West Bank that was brokered last October by President Clinton in arduous talks at the Wye River Plantation near Washington.
The postponement was seen as a signal that the Clinton administration is acting on a recent appeal from the new Israeli prime minister to stop playing the role of referee in disputes between Israel and the Palestinians. It was Barak who telephoned Albright last week and asked that she delay her trip until the latest dispute with the Palestinians is resolved, according to accounts in Israeli newspapers that were confirmed by U.S. officials.
The Palestinians regard the United States as the guarantor of the Wye River accord, and as a result they are not much interested in a scaled-down U.S. role in peacemaking. They see pressure from U.S. officials as the best means to ensure that the Israelis stick to the agreement as it was drafted--which is one reason Barak asked that Washington stop acting as a referee.
The dispute concerns the timing, schedule and sequence of an Israeli troop withdrawal from 13 percent of the West Bank, as agreed to at Wye River last fall. Under the agreement, the three-stage withdrawal was to have been completed by March, but after carrying out the first of the three pullbacks in November--from about 2 percent of the West Bank--Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu suspended the deal, citing Palestinian failures to comply with security provisions of the accord.
Barak, who took office last month, has not accused the Palestinians publicly of violating the Wye agreement, and the United States has urged both sides to carry it out completely, a position Albright presumably would have maintained during a visit here. The question now is when Israel will resume fulfilling its end of the deal and grant the Palestinians full or partial control of a further 11 percent of the West Bank.
Barak has offered to restart the Wye timetable in September and remove Israeli troops from another 4 percent of the territory in October, and Arafat said today that he accepts Barak's starting date. But Barak also has proposed that the last and largest withdrawal mandated by the Wye accord, from 7 percent more of the West Bank, be postponed until the two sides strike a broader deal on much tougher issues. Those include the final location of borders of a potential Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlers, and the future political status of Jerusalem, which each side claims as its rightful capital.
There is no sign Arafat will agree to that Israeli proposal; in fact, since Barak raised the idea last month, the Palestinians have rejected it out of hand and insisted on a full and swift Israeli pullout. "We still expect that he will carry out the full 13 percent withdrawal in the shortest period," Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath, a top aide to Arafat, said in an interview.
Shaath confirmed that the State Department had informed the Palestinians that Albright was postponing her trip, perhaps until early September. An Israeli official also confirmed that Albright is unlikely to visit before the end of August.
In some ways, Barak needs Albright's visit as much as the Palestinians do, although for a different reason. Israeli officials have been hoping that an Albright trip to the Middle East, which will be her first since Barak took office, will provide the impetus to resume separate Israeli peace talks with Syria that were broken off in 1996.
Barak has promised to conduct negotiations with the Palestinians and Syrians simultaneously on parallel tracks. Doing so could provide him with leverage against one or the other negotiating partner, analysts say.