Posted on September 15, 1997 in Washington Watch

On Tuesday night, in the midst of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s visit to the Middle East, I had the opportunity to speak to President Bill Clinton about her trip and its chance for success.

Given the political climate in the U.S. and the Middle East, no one had high expectations for the outcome of the Secretary’s first foray in the region. But the President was clearly aware of the grave dangers that exist if the peace process continues to falter. Dangers not only to Israelis and Palestinians, but also to U.S. standing and its interests in the broader Middle East.

At a minimum, he agreed Secretary Albright must return to the U.S. with Israelis and Palestinians and the U.S.’s other Arab allies convinced that the U.S. is committed to be a firm and fair honest broker in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As low a measure of success as this might be, it is a necessary prerequisite to any further progress. It is also a useful guide by which to evaluate the Secretary’s visit.

Regardless of the fact that when pressed, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has made halting concessions, there is still widespread belief that he is not fully committed to full implementation of the peace accords signed by his predecessors. While Netanyahu recently offered a map of territorial concessions he is willing to make in final status talks (considered by some in the Jewish community as a breakthrough since no Likud leader has ever agreed to any territorial concessions) these are dismissed by some Administration officials as “unacceptable cantons” which fall far short of fulfilling Palestinian aspirations. In any case, Netanyahu has now withdrawn consideration of any further redeployments until his security demands are met.

The Israeli Prime Minister appears to feel that he can play his cards as he wishes because he has strong backing from the U.S. Congress and the politically powerful U.S. Jewish community.

To reinforce this point, a paid advertisement endorsed by five U.S. Senators appeared in major U.S. papers on the day before the Secretary’s departure. The ad, an open letter to President Clinton, spoke of PNA President Yasir Arafat in disgracefully harsh language; calling him a “villan” and terming his behavior as “macabre”. The ad and a similar letter sent to the President by 44 members of Congress urged the Secretary to focus her visit on Palestinian terrorism and to refrain from any push for Israeli concessions.

It is clear that the Administration has resisted this pressure. At two high-level meetings, Arab American leaders had with National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering just before the Secretary’s departure; we pressed the Administration to adopt a more evenhanded approach. With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, we specifically called on the Secretary to reaffirm that the basis of the peace process was “land for peace” and implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and to press the Israelis on settlement construction, acts of collective punishment against Palestinians (i.e. house demolitions, land confiscation, and closure) and urged her to push for implementation of the interim accords. Finally, we noted that if the Secretary was to succeed in restoring confidence in U.S. leadership that she must use public diplomacy in an evenhanded manner. It would be unacceptable, we noted, if the only public message that came out of her meetings focused on security issues. If public pressure was to be used with the Palestinian side, we said, it must be used with the Israelis as well.

It is in this context that the first leg of Secretary Albright’s Middle East visit should be viewed. While many Arab critics have faulted the Secretary for focusing on the security dimension of her mission, it is important to note the significant portion of her message that addressed Arab concerns with the peace process. Even when addressing the issue of terrorism, the Secretary and other Administration officials voiced their concern not only in terms of their concern for the loss of innocent Israeli lives, but the damage that terrorism does to the Palestinians, noting that these attacks target the peace process, the PNA and threaten Palestinian gains. In fact, one official noted with frustration that each act of terrorism is timed to take pressure off of the Israeli Prime Minster’s failings and to focus U.S. and Israeli attention on the security issues instead of on Israeli policies.

At the same time, Secretary Albright did reaffirm U.S. commitment to the “land for peace” formula and to implementation of UN Resolution 242 and 338. Throughout the week, Administration officials continued to refer to PNA president Yasir Arafat as “our partner in the peace process” thus refuting congressional efforts to demonize and isolate the Palestinian leader.

And the Secretary reserved her sharpest comments for criticism of Israeli acts which destroy confidence in the peace process citing settlement building, land confiscation, demolition of houses, and confiscation of Jerusalem I.D. cards. She also spoke eloquently of her concerns for Palestinian suffering referring on a number of occasions to the “difficult” and “horrible” conditions in which Palestinians are forced to live, and calling on the Israelis to make efforts to improve Palestinian daily life.

To add further clarity to her message, the Secretary also had a well publicized meeting with the widow of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and a meeting with Israeli President Ezer Weizman, the contents of which were later leaked to the press by Sate Department Spokesman Jamie Rubin.

Following her visit with Secretary Albright to the tomb of her husband, Leah Rabin speaking at a press conference spoke harshly of the current Israeli Prime Minster. She accused Netanyahu of attempting to “bring Yasir Arafat to his knees” and said she had doubts that the Prime Minister wanted peace. Mrs. Rabin said, “to say it is possible for Arafat to stop the terror without there being forward movement toward peace is impossible.”

To add further pressure on Netanyahu, the State Department Spokesman told reporters following President Ezer Weizman’s meeting with Secretary Albright that Weizman had said that “the U.S. should be prepared to pressure Bibi to finish the second stage of redeployment on the West Bank.” Rubin added, “I thought that was a remarkable statement by the Israeli President.” Rubin also said that Weizman said that “Israel should not use economic pressure against the Palestinians.”

While some Arab commentators heard only part of Secretary Albright’s message, it would be unfair to ignore the rest of her message and the carefully staged events with Mrs. Rabin and the Israeli President and the impact that they were designed to have. Clearly the Secretary was not misunderstood in the U.S. Headlines told the story, “Albright’s Visit Bares U.S.-Israel Division Over Peace Process” (Washington Post 9/12/97), “Albright Asks Israel to Take time-out on Settlements” (New York Times 9/12/97), “Albright Draws Fire From Israelis; Asks for Time Out on Jewish Settlements” (Washington Times 9/12/97).

As Secretary Albright noted in her departure, she had no magic formula that could save the peace process. Given the hostility of Congress, the intransigence of the Netanyahu government, and the persistence of acts of violence designed to disrupt the peace process, she faced huge hurdles in her effort.

Her goals were, therefore, limited. To shake up the internal Israeli debate, to restore hope to a beleaguered Palestinian society, and to convince all parties that if violence would end that pressure not only would but could be focused on the political issues that must be resolved to move the process forward.

While Secretary Albright’s appeal has been accepted by PNA President Yasir Arafat, it was rejected by the Israeli Prime Minister. She has succeeded, however, in provoking a strong internal debate in Israel. Most recent polls show that 60% of all Israelis are dissatisfied with the Prime Minister’s performance and 55% specifically displeased with his policies toward the Palestinian Authority.

It remains to be seen whether or not the Secretary’s goal of convincing the Arab world that the U.S. is a fair and balanced partner will be believed but it would be unfortunate if she is not given credit for making a strong effort in this direction.

The real test of U.S. resolve will come in the next few weeks. If violence can be stopped, how the U.S. responds to Israel’s rejection of Secretary Albright’s appeal will be a critical factor in the overall assessment of the Secretary’s trip. The difficulties faced by the Administration will, of course, be compounded by expected pressure from a hostile Congress. But, if the U.S. is to convince the region that it is a fair and firm honest broker, Congress and Israel must continue to be challenged, if what is left of the peace process can be saved.

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