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Can She Help?
Albright's Middle East challenge: a reality check for Arafat and Netanyahu
By Douglas Waller/Washington
(TIME, September 15) -- This was no. 20--the 20th suicide attack on Israeli targets since the day in September 1993 when the Israelis signed a peace accord with the Palestinians. The 20th time fanatical Palestinians sought to kill and maim as many Israelis as they and their weapons could reach. The 20th time men opposed to peace have tried to drown the process in pools of blood.
Last Thursday there were three of them, one apparently dressed as a woman. They stationed themselves along the Ben Yehuda promenade in the heart of west Jerusalem, where residents and tourists pack the pedestrian mall to shop and sip drinks at outdoor cafes. Within eyesight of one another, the three detonated their bombs packed with 4 lbs. of explosives, filled with nails and screws.
Their object was, of course, to kill. In that they succeeded, unleashing a blast that could be heard miles away as it blew them apart, killing four Israelis and wounding almost 200 more. For the second time in six weeks, paramedics and police raced to handle grisly carnage on Jerusalem's streets: a little girl's body lying mangled in an alley, a headless corpse resting nearby, arms and legs scattered everywhere, blood sprayed on the front of a bank, bits of flesh left for ultra-Orthodox volunteers to scoop up for burial.
The bombers' object, though, is also to frighten: to scare Israelis, Palestinians and Washington into giving up the process of reconciliation begun four years ago. Security officials in Israel and the U.S. had been bracing for some kind of terrorist strike before Secretary of State Madeleine Albright embarked on her first Middle East mission this week. Security had been beefed up on Ben Yehuda Street, one of three popular public areas the Israelis had specifically suspected might be hit. Yet the suicide bombers demonstrated once again that they could strike at will, reopening the cycle of violence and punishment that has done so much to blight the peace process.
But they did not scare Albright away. Now more than ever, said a vacationing President Clinton, was her presence needed there. "The perpetrators of this attack intended to kill both innocent people and the peace process itself," he said. "They must not be allowed to succeed."
The Ben Yehuda attack did succeed in making what little progress the American Secretary had hoped to achieve this week even more difficult. "Poor Madeleine is going out there, expected to put Humpty Dumpty back together again," admitted one of her aides, "but it's an almost impossible mission." This was already a major test of Albright's blunt and brassy diplomacy. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat are now so mutually distrustful, so hamstrung by extremist political constituents, that they cannot bear to talk to each other, much less negotiate in good faith. In a situation where toughness and the matching of wills are not always enough, even her most ardent admirers wonder whether Albright can help them climb out of the mess.
Perhaps the politician most damaged by the bombs is Arafat. He immediately condemned the attack, promised to cooperate in hunting terrorists and ordered the detention of 10 leaders of Hamas, which had quickly taken responsibility for the blast. But Netanyahu, while touring a Jerusalem hospital filled with the wounded, vowed to back away from peace talks if Arafat doesn't crack down on the radical Islamists. Israelis again locked down the West Bank and Gaza Strip, keeping 100,000 Palestinians who commute to Israel out of work, and rounded up suspected Islamist militants.
The next day Netanyahu's government announced it would cede no more territory to the Palestinians unless Arafat crushed Hamas. "We can't have a situation in which we are asked to hand over more land at a time when they are not fighting terror," the Prime Minister said. He also threatened to hunt down Hamas operatives in Arafat's jurisdiction, even if that violates the accords. After the bombing, military commanders shuttled to Netanyahu's office, stirring speculation that they were reviewing contingency plans for such raids.
The woman charged with trying to save these antagonists from themselves has been in no hurry to visit the region. In 20 often fruitless trips, Albright's predecessor, Warren Christopher, became a model of what she saw as American diplomatic impotence. Unsure of herself in the byzantine world of Middle Eastern politics, she said she would travel there only if she could accomplish something substantial.
But the Middle East wouldn't wait. Netanyahu's hard-line stands on carrying out provisions of the 1993 agreement and decisions such as the building of a new Jewish settlement in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem enraged and frustrated the Palestinians. Arafat's failure to cooperate with Israeli agents in monitoring and arresting Islamic extremists or to silence the rhetoric of violence that lends their acts legitimacy enraged and stiffened Netanyahu. In the aftermath of the July 30 Jerusalem bombing that took the lives of 15 victims and provoked Israel's punitive response, relations slid down to the level of name calling. Arafat made matters worse when he publicly embraced a Hamas leader at a so-called unity conference in Gaza. Netanyahu warned that the Palestinian chief may have given the "kiss of death" to the peace process.
Meanwhile the U.S. was widely criticized for neglecting the area. "Albright was going everywhere else, except to the Middle East," notes Robert Pelletreau, the State Department's Assistant Secretary for the region during Clinton's first term. But she continued to insist she would go only when the chances for progress were high, not low.
She meant, explains a senior U.S. diplomat, that "she would go to focus on the broader political initiative once we saw progress on the security issues." An Albright visit was held out to the Palestinians as a reward for shutting down the Islamists. That didn't happen, and now, as far as the Israelis are concerned, that's the whole purpose of her trip. "I think she realized that waiting for a sufficient crackdown was not going to suffice," says David Bar-Illan, Netanyahu's director of communications and policy planning. "We want progress on this issue. If it can be effected by her presence, we want that. If it can't be, we sympathize with her efforts." As the week ended, Netanyahu made it plain that he is in no mood even to address other questions. He refused to send his representative to an intelligence-sharing meeting with Palestinian officials that the CIA station chief scheduled, fuming, "We're sick of talks."
Arafat looks no more cooperative, despite his desperate need to produce negotiating results. He has usually been the more movable party, forced to make concessions as the inferior power in the partnership. But these days he's drawing his own red lines, refusing both to come down hard on the Islamists and to convey to his people that violence is not an option. Nor do the Palestinians feel any confidence that they stand a chance with the pro-Israel Clinton Administration.
To prepare for this difficult mission, Albright closeted herself with Middle East advisers for hours and carted home a foot-high stack of briefing books. Obsessed with understanding the personalities of foreign officials, she pored over intelligence reports on Arafat along with Netanyahu's book, A Place Among the Nations. Once on the ground, though, Albright will rely heavily on her patented blunt talk. She won't be as bare-knuckled with these sensitive rivals as she was during her visit to the Balkans last May when she repeatedly dressed down Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian strongman Franjo Tudjman in public. But she will deliver a "reality check" to Arafat and Netanyahu on the consequences of their standoff, says her spokesman James Rubin.
Arafat, however, may be neither inclined nor able to crush Hamas, as Netanyahu demands. The Israeli Prime Minister isn't afraid to take the gloves off either. When Albright telephoned Netanyahu in March to plead with him to delay the East Jerusalem settlement, "he stiffed her, rudely and angrily," reveals a U.S. official, "saying in a patronizing way that she didn't understand the issue."
Tough talk from a Secretary of State works in the Middle East only if Washington has imaginative, practical ideas that can help bridge the chasm between two such mistrustful adversaries. And those ideas work, says Richard Haass, Middle East adviser under President George Bush, "only if the President is willing to back them up." Clinton could bask in the South Lawn signing of the 1993 agreement because Arafat and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were willing to make peace on their own. The test for Clinton now is whether he is prepared to weigh in when the two leaders aren't willing to do so.
--With reporting by Lisa Beyer/Jerusalem
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