Will Albrights Jewish heritage color Mideast diplomacy effort

WASHINGTON — When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for the first time, they will have something to talk about besides Mideast peace: their Jewish roots.

America's top diplomat has termed "fairly compelling" newly uncovered information that at least three of her grandparents were Jewish.

Along with many other relatives, they died at the hands of the Nazis.

Albright's parents never told her of this and raised her Roman Catholic.

The revelations, prompted by extensive research by the Washington Post, come a week before Netanyahu is set to kick off a series of visits by Mideast leaders with Albright and President Clinton.

Talks with Clinton are expected to focus on solidifying the gains of the recent Israeli-Palestinian Hebron agreement as well as on trying to restart Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

Another focus is to launch relations between Netanyahu's government and the new secretary of state.

News of Albright's Jewish roots stunned many this week — most of all Albright herself. When she was first appointed, many were certain she was Jewish. But Albright's office repeatedly confirmed that she was not.

According to information published in the Post, her paternal grandparents, Arnost and Olga Korbel, were Jews who died at Auschwitz.

Her maternal grandmother, Anna Spieglova, was also killed by the Nazis. Other relatives died at Terezin, a holding camp for Czech Jews.

"Obviously it is a very personal matter," Albright told the Post.

"The only thing I have to go by is what my mother and father told me, how I was brought up," the paper quoted her as saying. Albright's father died in 1977, her mother in 1989.

Albright gave the Post a copy of an 11-page unfinished family history written in 1977 by her mother. The handwritten work makes no reference to Judaism or relatives who died in the Holocaust.

The Post quoted Mandula Korbel as writing, "With the help of some good friends and lots of luck and a little bribery" the family "managed to get the necessary Gestapo permission to leave the country."

Albright's family fled Czechoslovakia in March 1939, days after Nazi forces occupied the country. Her father, a diplomat, took the family to London, where they stayed until after the war.

The family returned home, but fled in 1948 after a Communist coup, and settled in the United States.

A copy of Albright's father's birth certificate lists Josef Korbel as "Jewish," according to the Post. In addition, names of relatives reportedly appear on the list of 77,000 Czech Holocaust victims inscribed on the wall of the Pinkas synagogue in Prague.

Revelations about Albright's Jewish roots are expected to have little direct impact on Washington-Jerusalem relations.

Pro-Israel activists — as well as Arab critics — have long considered her a strong supporter of the Jewish state.

A State Department official said the new revelations had "nothing to do with her job."

"This will have no effect on her performance as secretary of state," he said.

When Albright told Clinton the news this week, he "said it was a fascinating story and encouraged Madeleine to find out more," White House spokesman Mike McCurry reportedly said.

"What Madeleine Albright is or isn't is a tragedy of the Holocaust," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "Her parents acted in one way or another because of what it meant to be Jewish."

This is "a very, very personal thing" for Albright, Foxman said. "Nobody can really understand or fully comprehend" her parents' reasoning or "what she is going through."

The information could liven up next week's meeting between Netanyahu and Albright.

Although Albright has devoted a great deal of work to other areas, the Middle East is likely to occupy much of her time, analysts say, as the region continues to play a big role on the Clinton administration's foreign policy agenda.

"President Clinton has his eye on the history books," said a White House official involved in setting up the meetings. "He wants history to record him as the president who presided over Middle East peace."

Still, U.S. officials do not expect any major breakthroughs during Netanyahu's one-week visit to the United States, which begins Wednesday, Feb. 12. He has also scheduled meetings with other top U.S. officials and lawmakers and with American Jews.

Clinton wants to "build on the momentum created by the accord on Hebron," said Dennis Ross, U.S. special Middle East coordinator.

The visit "will be marked by a business-is-back-to-normal attitude," said Joel Singer, a Washington attorney in who was a chief Israeli negotiator with the Palestinians.

"I expect there will be an attempt made by the U.S. administration to prove that relations between the U.S. and Israel are as good as they have ever been."

The visit, Netanyahu's fourth since becoming prime minister, marks the first time he will come to the White House during a period of relative calm.

His first visit came in July, shortly after his electoral victory. Clinton had openly backed his electoral opponent.

He came again in September as talks stalled in the region. The third visit was for an emergency summit Clinton had called after Palestinian police and Israeli forces exchanged fire in the wake of the tunnel dispute in Jerusalem.

Many see Netanyahu's next visit as the first victory lap for Mideast leaders, now that the peace process seems back on track.

Netanyahu will be followed by Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Hussein.

One focus of the meetings will be to try to hammer out an agreement enabling Syria and Israel to resume their long-stalled peace talks.

Damascus has refused to reopen talks, on hold since last spring, until Netanyahu agrees to informal assurances given by the previous government. Syria believes it had a deal that Israel would withdraw from the entire Golan Heights in exchange for peace.

Netanyahu is expected to bring up the fate of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, now serving a life sentence. Clinton has refused to pardon Pollard or commute his sentence to time served. Pollard's wife, Esther, is urging Netanyahu to appeal to Clinton on humanitarian grounds to release her husband.