Playing to the Crowd

Article excerpt

On her first visit to the Mideast, Albright takes her message to the people. Did anyone listen?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT DIDN'T hide her disappointment. "I'm not going to pretend to you that I've accomplished a lot," the secretary of state told reporters as she left Israel last week. Despite her trademark strategy of "public diplomacy," the peace process remained as stuck as ever.

No one had supposed Albright could singlehandedly drag Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasir Arafat back to the negotiating table. But there had been at least a slim hope she might prevail by going over the two leaders' heads. Albright took her case straight to the people, speaking to them on Israeli television and Palestinian radio. She wanted to send a message to Arafat and Netanyahu via a channel they wouldn't dare ignore: their own people. As of late last week the effort seemed futile. Albright boarded her plane, saying she would return "whenever the leaders have made the hard decisions." Until then, she vowed, "I am not going to come back here just to tread water."

Albright has made her name as a most undiplomatic diplomat. Her sharp tongue and her love of playing to the crowd have made her enormously popular with American audiences. The question is whether Albright's public diplomacy is a strategy that works where it counts--outside the United States. The Mideast could very well be a test that utterly defies solution, no matter what the approach. Nothing tried so far has been able to revive the near-dead Oslo accords. "I am a realist and not a magician," she told an Israeli audience. "I cannot pull a rabbit out of a hat if there aren't the makings of it there."

Still, Albright's performance disappointed many Israelis and Palestinians, who agreed she had misjudged her audience. It made no difference that careful logic was behind her tactics. A senior administration official says the secretary made it her first priority to gain the Israelis' confidence (in the first 24 hours of her visit, she met no Palestinians). Having established her credentials as a friend, she then proceeded to put Netanyahu on the spot for his "unhelpful" behavior. "Israel should refrain from unilateral acts--including what Palestinians perceive as the provocative expansion of settlements, land confiscations, home demolitions and confiscations of IDs," she declared in a nationally televised speech at a Jerusalem high school. She publicly urged Netanyahu to declare a"timeout" on the expansion of West Bank settlements.

But such public berating of an Israeli leader can backfire. "There are things that leaders can agree to behind closed doors," said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, who went on to say that no Israeli government could be seen to do something on the settlements as a result of outside pressure. …