Trying to Agree on What's Already Been Agreed

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It was said of former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he wanted a peace process without a conclusion. At this rate, his wish may be fulfilled. Although new premier Ehud Barak expressed optimism Tuesday that the latest Israeli-Palestinian deadlock could be broken before U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright arrives in Jerusalem Thursday, Palestinian representatives were less upbeat about prospects for resolving the dispute over prisoner releases. Last yearís Wye River accord requires Israel to release some 750 Palestinian prisoners, but Israel is refusing to free those who have engaged in political violence. That, say Palestinian representatives, defeats the very purpose of a peace process between Israel and a Palestinian movement that waged war against it.

The latest problem is just one more detour in the tedious search for Middle East peace, a process in which all sides have learned the delicate art of diminishing expectations, and how to put an epic spin on minor achievements. For instance, an agreement in the current talks will be heralded at a high-profile signing ceremony in Cairo, with Albright in attendance. Such pomp may seem a little over the top for an accord that amounts to no more than an undertaking to implement the agreement reached a year ago at Wye ó never mind that Wye itself, despite its dramatic eleventh-hour White House signing ceremony, was simply an agreement to implement agreements previously reached at Oslo. Oh well, if you canít have a true peace agreement, at least you can keep the two sides busy in a peace process.