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Madeleine Albright may have coaxed another eleventh-hour breakthrough out of Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, but that was just the warm-up round of her Middle East visit. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators look set to give Albright a signing-ceremony photo opportunity after all, having reached a deal over prisoner releases that will get last year’s Wye Accord back on track. Albright may have shuttled between Jerusalem and Cairo, and worked the phones early Friday to remove the last obstacles to an agreement, but this was all done en passant. The agreement over implementing Wye had never been the priority of her visit to the region, which began Thursday, and she had made abundantly clear to both sides that she has no interest in playing referee. The secretary of state’s primary mission is to shuttle between Jerusalem and Damascus in a bid to restart Israeli-Syrian talks that have been in limbo since 1996.

Although both Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Barak, and Syria’s president, Hafez Assad, are eager to reach agreement on Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights, they need some help breaking the ice. While both sides are able to envisage Israeli withdrawal in exchange for cast-iron Syrian security guarantees, starting talks requires some delicate choreography. Syria insists on a public commitment by Israel to return the Golan to its rightful owners before talks begin; Israel is unable to make such a commitment in the absence of a security deal. Adding to the problems are the lack of so-called back-channel communications between the two countries. Syria has long been in the orbit of Russia, unlike, for instance, Jordan and Egypt, with which Israel was able to engage in much behind-the-scenes maneuvering before settling down to final peace negotiations. That’s where Albright comes in, with some old-fashioned shuttle diplomacy designed to coax both sides out onto the dance floor. And that may have helped spur the Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough – after all, Arafat doesn't like being in second place on anyone's dance card.