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Albright Takes Push for Peace to Syrian Leader

Mideast: Secretary of State says her return to Israel depends on leaders' 'hard decisions' to advance process.


DAMASCUS, Syria — Secretary of State Madeleine Albright turned her attention to Syria on Friday after failing to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

U.S. officials said Albright had hoped to arrange a face-to-face meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat but was unable to do so. But Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy will confer with Arafat's deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, at the United Nations in three weeks, Albright said, and senior advisors to the two leaders will meet in Washington the week before that.

Still, she conceded that these are small steps when "what is needed at this time are large steps."

Albright said she does not plan to return to the region until there is a better chance for success.

"I will come back here whenever the leaders have made hard decisions [to advance peace], but I am not going to come back here to tread water," she said.

Albright met with Syrian President Hafez Assad late Friday. They haggled for 3 1/2 hours over the troubled peace process, making what a U.S. official described as some progress but failing to find a basis for renewing Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

"We think there are possibilities, but we still see gaps," the senior official said.

Albright went to Assad's palace shortly after arriving in Damascus, the capital, from Jerusalem.

Israel broke off negotiations with Syria in March 1996 in the wake of a series of terrorist incidents.

After the election of Netanyahu the following May, Syria said it would resume talks only if the new government was willing to accept tentative agreements that had been negotiated by former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

Netanyahu insisted that the talks start from scratch.

The U.S. official said Albright will meet separately at the United Nations with Levy and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh. But there was no indication that the Israeli and Syrian officials will meet face to face.

Israel's relationship with the Palestinians has not been frozen as solidly or as long as its relationship with Syria. But contacts broke down in the wake of two deadly terrorist bombings in Jerusalem, attacks that Israel said the Palestinian Authority did too little to try to prevent.

Netanyahu's spokesman, David Bar-Illan, said Israel's representatives at the upcoming talks in Washington will be Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh and Netanyahu's political advisor, Uzi Arad.

Arafat advisor and spokesman Marwan Kanafani said the Palestinian leader had not yet decided whom to send to Washington but is likely to choose Abbas and chief peace negotiator Saeb Erekat.

There may be more significant results from Albright's visit, but only time will tell. She said Arafat agreed to take firm action against terrorism, a step the U.S. and Israel have said is a prerequisite for restarting the stymied peace process.

"We will have to see concrete results," Albright said.

Israeli officials confirmed that Albright told Netanyahu she expected the Palestinian leader to take unspecified actions against terrorism soon, perhaps within the next few days.

On her first visit to the Middle East as secretary of State, Albright said the Israelis and Palestinians must share the blame for the current crisis in the peace process. In addition to demanding firm Palestinian action against terrorism, she called on the Israelis to suspend construction of settlements, including the disputed Har Homa development in a traditionally Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem; stop demolishing Arab homes; and return confiscated Palestinian tax money.

Israeli officials expressed overall satisfaction with Albright's visit, despite her call for a freeze on Jewish settlement building. Israel immediately rejected Albright's appeal, but by Friday it had softened its tone regarding the unusual public criticism.

"Overall, the main purpose of her visit was to impart to the Palestinians the need to fight terrorism," Bar-Illan said. "She made it very clear that this was the first requirement before everything else.

"She also repeated the U.S. position on settlements--an approach that we understand very clearly is different from ours--but the main purpose was to get the Palestinians to show that they are serious about fighting terrorism," he said.

Kanafani, the Arafat spokesman, said: "I don't know if you can say she achieved anything other than getting the two parties to agree to talk again. She got both parties pleased at times and angry at times. We'll see what can be done in Washington."

Albright appealed directly to the Palestinian public Friday with a speech carried live in Arabic translation on Palestinian radio and with a brief question-and-answer session with carefully selected Palestinian teenagers at the American Friends school in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

In her encounter with the high school students, Albright was peppered with questions suggesting that Israeli destruction of houses, arbitrary arrests and humiliation of Palestinians amount to terrorism.

"There is no moral equivalence," Albright said. "Where innocent people are killed or injured, that is terrorism."

Several of the students said later that they were disappointed in the meeting. Several complained that their questions were screened ahead of time and that only the most innocuous were allowed.

"She kept repeating [the idea of] reciprocity. We are not against that," said Faris Arouri, 16. "But she kept talking about terrorism."

Muna Hijazi, 16, added: "She came and everything was planned for us, including what we should ask her."

Kempster reported from Damascus, Trounson from Jerusalem.

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