AFFAIRS OF STATE: Madeleine Albright Crowns Her Unsuccessful Middle East Trip with a Venture in Pilate Diplomacy

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AFFAIRS OF STATE: Madeleine Albright Crowns Her Unsuccessful Middle East Trip With a Venture in Pilate Diplomacy

At the September conclusion of her Middle East trip, Madeleine Albright tried to use Pilate diplomacy on the two principal antagonists, the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. Threatening not to return to the area and thus to wash her hands of the leadership on both sides, she refused to make any judgment, even of the most obvious kind, about the issues, about the deceitfulness of Bibi Netanyahu, and about what the United States felt was a right and just interpretation of the terms of the Oslo agreement.

She had to settle for tiny and perhaps even worthless steps such as re-opening negotiations at a low level about re-discussing opening the newly built Palestinian seaport and airport in Gaza and safe passage for Palestinians from Gaza to the West Bank. These are issues already decided, with implementation long overdue. Later in October, perhaps, there will be further re-negotiations in Washington about carrying out the second (overdue since September) withdrawal by the Israelis within the West Bank as promised in the Hebron Agreement. But when the first withdrawal was due last March, Binyamin Netanyahu offered to vacate only 2 percent of the land instead of the 30 percent the Palestinians were expecting. If he repeats this demeaning conduct, the Palestinians are sure to go into the streets again, and the Israelis are sure to mount their bulldozers and their tanks.

The fact that Washington is to be the site for discussion of these further withdrawals is significant, because the State Department had chosen earlier to back the Israeli interpretation of the Oslo agreements that only Israel decides on the extent of withdrawal, an assertion not borne out by even one article in the Oslo accord, which specifies that the withdrawals will be negotiated.

Israel chose to ignore this, clearly a violation of the spirit of Oslo and probably a violation of its legal provisions as well.

The betting in Washington is that Netanyahu will not make a single major concession in response to Albright's plea for a "time out" in Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In ignoring Albright, the Israeli prime minister will only be following the example of the U.S. congressmembers who ignored her request for a time out on Arafat-bashing resolutions.

Her call in Jerusalem for some realistic thinking by the leaders would have some potential if President Bill Clinton were to follow it up with a strong message that the Oslo agreements must be honored with measures such as withdrawal in the interim stage from substantial parts of the West Bank, followed by honest negotiations on the final borders and the final status of Jerusalem.

MADELEINE'S EGO AND NETANYAHU

But Israel's present government is going in the opposite direction, making meaningless withdrawals from tiny areas and refusing even to talk about sharing sovereignty in Jerusalem. One source in New York speculated that what may save the situation is what he described as the "massive ego" of the secretary of state.

"If she finally determines that her whole position is being threatened by the intransigence of Netanyahu and the Israelis, she could make up her mind to do something about it," he said. "Something real. Something tough." The source added, however, that he was not expecting anything but further retreat from confrontation with Netanyahu and continued pressure on the Palestinian Authority.

Albright obviously was deceived from the outset by Netanyahu about further settlement building on Arab land. Reporters queried her spokesman intensively about the fact that when he talked with her by telephone only hours before her scheduled speech at the United Nations, the Israeli prime minister neglected to mention to her his intention to announce 300 more houses to be built in Efrat, near Bethlehem. …