'The President Is the Master of the Facts'

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The Sharm el-Sheik summit Bill Clinton held with Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Monday and Tuesday was supposed to get the combatants on the streets disengaged, the siege lifted and the peace talks started once again. The day after the summit, Barak pulled his forces back in some places and Arafat curbed some of the violence. But the fighting is flaring up again and the cease-fire is hanging by a thin thread. During her flight back Wednesday from the marathon Middle East talks, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sat down with TIME's Douglas Waller for a frank talk about what U.S. diplomacy is and isn't accomplishing in this troubled part of the world:

TIME: For the past two weeks the President has been practically the Mideast desk officer for the U.S. government, unsnarling everything from road traffic disputes to the separation of combatants. Should a president of the United States be this far into the weeds of the negotiations?

Albright: It happens because he's smart and committed and because Prime Minister Barak wants to handle things himself. So it's elevated in some ways automatically to the head-of-government level. But the President is the master of the facts and he has a unique ability. And he's respected.

Q.: The 1993 Oslo accord the Israelis and Palestinians signed was supposed to set in motion a peace process with interim agreements that would bring an end to these violent eruptions. What happened? Is there a weakness in the peace process that you didn't anticipate?

A.: There has been [a debate] as to what the value has been in the interim agreements [signed since Oslo]. There are those who thought they would provide the lubricant for permanent status [negotiations] because they were going to be able to work out simpler problems before they got to the really difficult issues. It was evident last summer that instead of being a lubricant it looked more like sandpaper, and that it made sense to move to the permanent status issues. We did that because we were concerned about the violence. But I think that there are not a lot of different approaches. You can let it smolder and do nothing or you can make the attempt to have them work out the problems.

I am very saddened by this kind of outbreak of hostility and violence. But without having illusions about this, I think there is a possibility that they will have vented and that they can get back [to peace talks].

Q.: A growing number of experts believe that this administration's effort to broker a Mideast deal just hasn't worked. Is it time for the U.S. to step aside and let somebody else try their hand at this — U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, a European leader, or maybe the Russians?

A.: It's not realistic. Ultimately we are the only country that can actually get something done. It isn't that we don't welcome help. Clearly Kofi was very helpful during this round. Other leaders who called Arafat were helpful. In a strange way it isn't we that are seeking the central role. They come to us.

Q.: When do you think an Israeli prime minister and Palestinian leader will conclude a final peace agreement. Or do you think they ever will?

A.: I operate on the basis that they ultimately have to. Because what we've seen now is not a tenable future. It's possible that something could be concluded fairly rapidly if we can break this cycle. On the other hand, the opposite is also possible. But I think that all of us operate on the premise that it has to be possible. And to those people who think that the peace process doesn't work or is flawed or is the problem, I just think they're dead wrong.