Albright's Middle East Mission Impossible?

  • Share
  • Read Later
The Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" might well be the theme song for Madeleine Albright's Middle East visit. Because like Messrs. Jagger and Richards she's trying to get Israelis and Palestinians to forget about what they want and start focusing on what it is that they need. But with both Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak answering to increasingly reluctant constituencies and with both sides having postponed the most intractable aspects of their peace process for the very end, Ms. Albright may well get no satisfaction. "She’s trying to hurry both sides along by telling them they’ll have to live with something less than 100 percent of what they want," says TIME State Department correspondent Doug Waller, traveling with the Secretary in the Mideast. "But large gaps remain between the two sides on the core issues, and each is accusing the other of refusing to compromise." Albright appears to have convinced both men to hold a summit meeting with President Clinton in the near future, but the distance between the two sides on the issues of the borders of a future Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees precluded for the past 52 years from returning to their original homes inside Israel dims prospects for a final agreement during President Clinton’s tenure.

The problems plaguing the talks are so fundamental to the peace process that even another round of sequestered summitry with President Clinton may struggle to overcome them. The premise of the Oslo Accord had been that the topics on the table this week were too fraught to be tackled early on, and should be postponed to allow interim agreements to foster greater trust between Israelis and Palestinians. If anything, the reverse has been true, with the result that Arafat and Barak have to make an even greater leap of faith than the late Yitzhak Rabin made with the Palestinian leader at a time when their uniformed men are as prone to fire on each other as they were a decade ago, and their supporters are more vehemently opposed than ever to compromising on the key issues. "Israel’s Lebanon withdrawal has led the Palestinians to restate their demand that Israel return all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem," says TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Lisa Beyer. "They’re saying for peace with Egypt and Lebanon, Israel withdrew from all Egyptian and Lebanese territory, and now it must do the same with Palestinian territory. But Arafat may be painting himself into a corner by raising Palestinian expectations that he’ll be unable to meet."

With Arafat threatening to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state by the end of the year, and Barak warning that Israel would retaliate with unilateral annexation of some West Bank lands, the Clinton administration may have to settle for medium-term damage control. The only relative certainty in the process is that the final outcome will be one that both sides accept grudgingly rather than gleefully. Perhaps that should be expected; after all, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is less of a marriage than a divorce.