WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Madeleine Albright heads to the Middle East this week for meetings that could set the tone for U.S. involvement in the troubled region for the rest of the Clinton administration, and possibly years longer.
Israel and the Palestinians--negotiating without direct U.S. involvement for the first time in almost four years--are closing in on an interim peace agreement that probably will be signed shortly after Albright arrives.
Those negotiations intensified late Sunday, less than 72 hours before Albright's scheduled arrival. Israeli and Palestinian mediators reported that they were still far apart on issues that included land transfers and prisoner releases. Israel demanded a "satisfactory" Palestinian response within hours, or no deal seemed likely.
Both sides looked to the Albright visit as a kind of deadline, with the Palestinians especially longing for more direct U.S. intervention.
For despite Washington's unaccustomed distance in this round of talks, Middle East experts say the U.S. role from here on will be crucial, requiring Washington to display all of the sticks and carrots in its bag of diplomatic tricks.
The focus of Albright's weeklong trip will be on Israel's negotiations with two very different adversaries: the Syrians and the Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak insists that he can make peace with the Palestinians with only minimal U.S. intervention. But virtually no one thinks a Syria-Israel agreement will be possible without the United States--and Albright personally--doing a lot of the heavy lifting.
"The Middle East is one of the few places where President Clinton can show results" before he leaves office, said William B. Quandt, a University of Virginia government professor and former top Middle East analyst for the National Security Council. "An Israel-Syria peace agreement would be a capstone for his administration."
But that, Quandt and other experts agree, will require intensive negotiations with Syrian President Hafez Assad, an aging but stubborn autocrat who insists that he wants to make peace with Israel, but only if the terms are right.
"Assad is kind of an acquired taste," Quandt said. "He is not easy to deal with, but it is necessary. If you are going to deal with him, you have to have patience. I'm not sure Madeleine has that."
U.S. and Israeli officials say one of the things Assad clearly wants to get in negotiations with Israel is a more friendly relationship with the United States, a benefit that only Washington can bestow.
Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited the Syrian capital, Damascus, more than 20 times during his four years in the job. The frequency of his pilgrimages to Assad's hilltop palace exposed him to considerable mockery. But those visits also nudged Israel and Syria closer to a peace deal than they had ever been.
The negotiations were suspended after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, and they collapsed entirely with the election of the hard-line Benjamin Netanyahu. Barak vowed to reopen the talks after defeating Netanyahu in May's elections. But even Israeli officials acknowledge that he can do little on that track without U.S. help.
On the other hand, Barak has in effect reversed Netanyahu's strategy of relying on extensive U.S. mediation in talks with the Palestinians.
Acting on a request from Barak, Albright delayed her trip for more than two weeks to give Israeli and Palestinian negotiators time to wrap up an agreement on the timetable for Israeli withdrawal from another slice of the West Bank, the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, steps toward opening a seaport in the Palestinian-administered Gaza Strip, and increased security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The tactic seems to have worked. Palestinian negotiators told Albright on Friday that they were close to a deal that could be signed during the secretary of State's trip, probably in Alexandria, Egypt. On Sunday, however, with disagreements continuing, Israeli officials speculated that Palestinian officials were waiting for Albright to arrive before clinching the deal. The two sides have not agreed on the number of prisoners to be released or what kind, or on the timetable for Israeli troops to withdraw from parts of the West Bank.
In any event, the accord they are working on covers only matters that all sides thought had been settled last fall at the U.S.-mediated talks at the Wye Plantation on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Barak has indicated that he will go ahead with the basic elements of Wye starting in September, with prisoner releases within two weeks and troop withdrawals beginning in October.
But the highly emotional issues to be covered in a final Israel-Palestinian peace agreement have not even been addressed.