Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright departs today on her first visit to the Middle East since the election of Israel's new prime minister, Ehud Barak, rekindled hopes for a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon.
Albright's spokesmen say she is merely going to "take stock" of revived peacemaking efforts during a four-day trip to Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Syria and Jordan. But U.S. officials hope the visit will produce concrete achievements, including a deal between Israel and the Palestinians on implementation of the U.S.-brokered Wye River accord and a commitment from Syrian President Hafez Assad to resume peace talks with Israel.
Neither outcome was assured yesterday.
As of last night, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were still at odds over the details of carrying out the Wye accord, raising the possibility that Albright could be called upon to help close the land-for-peace deal during an expected meeting Thursday between Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Alexandria, Egypt.
An even greater challenge may await Albright Saturday in Damascus. Both Syria and Israel are counting on Washington's assistance in finding a formula to restart peace talks--suspended in 1996--that would revolve around Syria's demand for the return of the Golan Heights. But Assad, while publicly praising Barak earlier this summer, has continued to insist on conditions that Israel regards as unacceptable.
Although State Department officials remain convinced that Assad is serious about making peace, Barak recently told foreign interlocutors that he is pessimistic about the chances for resuming talks with Syria any time soon, according to a person familiar with the conversations.
Mindful of the diplomatic uncertainties that attend any Middle Eastern trip by a U.S. secretary of state, administration officials have used caution in outlining the goals of Albright's visit--her first to the region since she accompanied President Clinton there last December.
Rather than focusing on specific agreements, State Department spokesman James Foley told reporters Monday, the trip's purpose is "more long-reaching, looking towards how, over the next 14 to 15 months, we can assist the parties as they engage in final-status negotiations on all tracks with the aim of achieving an overall comprehensive Middle East peace agreement by the end of the year 2000."
Albright's caution reflects, in part, her desire to avoid the fate of her predecessor, Warren Christopher, who made more than 20 trips to Damascus but failed to produce an agreement. But after three years of bitterness and stalemate in Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, U.S. officials are eager for tangible progress, beginning with the Wye accord, which calls for Israel to withdraw its troops from an additional 12 percent of the West Bank. The accord was signed by Barak's predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu, but never implemented.
U.S. officials emphasize that they are merely acting as "facilitators" in the Wye implementation talks and continued to express optimism yesterday that both sides would reach agreement in time for Albright's arrival Thursday in Egypt. If that does not happen, however, Albright could well be drawn into a more assertive role, according to Robert H. Pelletreau, the former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
"There's precedent for that," said Pelletreau, recalling that when Christopher traveled to Cairo to conclude the so-called Gaza accord with Arafat and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, "the meetings went on till 3 a.m. [when] they agreed on the final points."
Pelletreau, who accompanied Christopher on some of his trips to Damascus, expressed confidence that Assad really does want to resume peace talks with Israel. On the other hand, he said, Albright should not expect to leave her meeting Saturday with an agreement in hand.
"What I'm assuming is Albright will . . . probably convey to Assad what she heard in Jerusalem and Assad will ask some questions, he'll think about it, and he won't give a definite answer because this is his first meeting with Albright on the subject, and it's not in the Syrian negotiating art to give answers in the first meeting," he said.
Pelletreau recalled that after one of Christopher's meetings with Assad, the Syrian leader suggested, "Why don't you hang around for 24 hours and let's have another discussion?" Christopher and Pelletreau used the extra day to tour the spectacular Roman ruins at Palmyra, then returned to Damascus and "had quite a productive discussion."