|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
14 - 20 May 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
'A wake-up call'US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, denying she will use pressure tactics but indicating impatience, was holding potentially fateful talks yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on an American formula for a West Bank withdrawal.
The centrepiece of the US package, a pullback of Israeli troops from 13 per cent of West Bank territory, has already been rejected by Netanyahu as perilous to Israel's security.
Albright hoped to turn Netanyahu around during yesterday's meeting by offering a plan that allays his concerns, possibly by delaying the transfer of some of the territory to the Palestinian Authority.
In a hastily-arranged speech, Albright tried to convey a sense of increasing urgency, issuing what she termed a "wake-up call" to Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make compromises before the stalled peace process collapses altogether.
Albright and her aides made clear that her remarks were aimed primarily at Israel, which has been arguing for months with the United States over the scale of the withdrawal. The Palestinians, who are being asked to crack down harder on Islamist militant groups, have accepted the US proposal.
Speaking at Washington's National Press Club, Albright denied that the US was giving ultimatums or threatening any country's security.
"What we have especially been trying to do in recent weeks is to issue a wake-up call," she said. "Act before it is too late. Decide before the peace process collapses. And understand that in a neighbourhood as tough as the Middle East, there is no security from hard choices, and no lasting security without hard choices."
Netanyahu had planned his trip to Washington to make Israel's case to members of Congress and to the American public in a series of speeches. But Albright cancelled a trip to Germany with President Bill Clinton to try to overcome the prime minister's objections.
If she succeeds, a peace conference Clinton had hoped to launch in Washington last Monday would be rescheduled and Israel and the Palestinian Authority would turn to far-more difficult issues in final status talks. These include Palestinian aspirations for a state, the future of Jerusalem, final borders and Palestinian refugees.
Declaring that she is an "eternal optimist," Albright said she hoped "there is a way that we can get this process back on track and, in fact, re-issue the invitation for accelerated permanent status talks to be held under President Clinton's auspices in Washington very soon."
"We have gone the extra mile," Albright said with a tinge of exasperation. The Palestinians have made a concerted effort to counter terrorism and "in the nature of partnership" Israel should be prepared to compromise, she said.
Albright said she was hopeful Netanyahu would reverse his position and accept the US package. "This is the only way" to end a 15-month impasse and launch talks on a permanent settlement, she added.
"In response primarily to Israeli requests, we allowed more time and then more time and then more time for our suggestions to be studied, considered and discussed," Albright said, signalling that US patience had run thin.
Much of Albright's speech aimed at rebutting the argument, advanced by Israel's supporters in the US, that by calling for a specific withdrawal Washington violated past pledges to let Israel decide its own security needs.
"The size [of the withdrawal] is something that we are trying to determine according to what can be accepted by both sides," she said.
State Department spokesman James Rubin said Albright's speech sought to show how far US ideas met criteria laid down by Israel itself. They came closer to Israel's offer of a nine per cent withdrawal than to Yasser Arafat's original demand of 30 per cent.
Both Albright and Rubin followed the long-standing US practice of refusing to give details of the US package.
Albright, answering questions after the speech, said "we are not trying to water down our ideas." But senior officials have also said previously that Washington is willing to consider refinements.
Albright later held separate, closed briefings for members of the House and Senate, where Netanyahu enjoys considerable backing.
Answering questions after her speech, Albright said she would not approach Netanyahu on a "take-it-or-leave-it basis. We are going to work with the prime minister," she said, indicating there may be a way to tinker with terms of the pullback.
Republican Senator Arlen Specter said he had questioned "the competency of the Clinton administration and the competency of the Secretary of State." He told reporters the administration's conditional invitation to peace talks amounted to an ultimatum.
"An honest broker does not take an advance position," Specter said. Albright called the US proposals "suggestions," not ultimatums.
And she re-affirmed former Secretary of State Warren Christopher's assurance to Israel in 1997 that it has the right under agreements with the Palestinians to decide how much land to relinquish.
But, Albright said, "it is in the nature of partnership that Israel should take Palestinian concerns into account...Otherwise, the peace process cannot move forward."
As part of her public relations offensive, Albright also met with leaders of major American Jewish groups, who came away apparently reassured about US intentions.
"She was very hopeful that the meeting [with Netanyahu] would be positive, and we came away feeling that the environment is a very healthy one," said Mel Salberg, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations.
The conference said earlier, however, that it had asked for a meeting with Clinton to discuss its concerns at a possible change in US policy toward Israel.
Republican lawmakers kept up their assault on Clinton's Middle East policy, demanding that the administration stop pressuring Israel.
New York Senator Alfonso D'Amato told a news conference the United States had lost its "moral authority as an honest broker of peace" with its demands. "It's absolutely wrong, it makes no sense. It threatens the security of Israel," he said.