News Analysis: Is crisis control only option for Albright in divided Mideast

That was the question Secretary of State Madeleine Albright confronted when she visited the Middle East this week.

With Israeli-Palestinian negotiations suspended since March and each side accusing the other of violating the accords signed on Sept. 13, 1993, Albright was faced with the challenge of finding a way to revive that process or revamp it.

But as she arrived Wednesday in Israel on her first Middle East mission, she encountered a dispirited country grieving the losses from a triple-suicide attack in Jerusalem and a failed commando operation in Lebanon — two tragedies that stunned the nation.

Four Israelis, among them three teenage girls, were killed and more than 190 others wounded Sept. 4 when three suicide bombers detonated near-simultaneous explosions at Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. A fifth Israeli died Monday from injuries sustained in the attack.

Less than 12 hours after the suicide attack, a failed raid into Lebanon early Friday morning by an elite unit of Navy commandos left 11 Israeli soldiers dead, with a 12th missing and presumed dead.

In the wake of those developments, the already low expectations for Albright's visit further diminished. Albright herself acknowledged Wednesday that restoring "a sense of partnership" between Israelis and Palestinians would not be accomplished on a single visit.

At best, observers said, she could lay the groundwork for a more productive visit later in the fall.

Albright, confronted with what is arguably the lowest point in the peace process since the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat first shook hands, pressed both sides to make concessions.

While making it clear that there is "no moral equivalence between killing people and building houses," Albright said, "Israelis and Palestinians need to restore the partnership and the reciprocity that produced" their historic agreements.

"The United States will do all it can to help the parties to rediscover the path to real peace and real security," Albright said Wednesday at a joint news conference in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Albright said in her message that achieving peace and security depended on a clear Palestinian commitment to crack down on terror.

"The enemies of peace are purposefully and relentlessly attacking Israelis. So the war against terror being waged by those who support the path of peace must also be purposeful and relentless," Albright said, adding that the Palestinian Authority must take "unilateral actions to root out the terrorist infrastructure."

But she said that both sides had to fulfill their obligations to restore the reciprocity needed to move the peace process forward. "Israel should be taking steps that build confidence," Albright noted, referring to an American proposal that Israel temporarily freeze its construction projects on disputed land.

Israel's decision in March to begin building a new Jewish neighborhood at Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem prompted the Palestinian Authority to suspend negotiations.

Given last week's tragedies, however, the Israeli government seemed unwilling to make any concessions. Netanyahu announced, days before Albright's arrival, that the Oslo peace process was in effect dead.

An Israeli Cabinet communiqué said there would be no further Israeli redeployments from rural areas of the West Bank, a move slated to take place early this month under the terms of the Hebron agreement signed in January. The Palestinians regard that step as essential for any progress in the peace process.

The Cabinet statement appeared to imply that if the Palestinian Authority fought terrorism to Israel's satisfaction, the process could yet be put back on track.

The Palestinian Authority "must decide if it wants peace with Hamas or peace with Israel, but it cannot be both," Netanyahu said at the news conference with Albright.

The Palestinians this week arrested dozens of suspected Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists. But, in a reflection of the ebb in trust between the two sides, Israeli officials characterized the arrests as a mere display intended to show Albright that they were serious about cracking down on terror.

Top officials in the Prime Minister's Office confirmed that, as far as they were concerned, the peace process was over. It was a process they had always opposed, they indicated, adding that Netanyahu had only reluctantly acceded to on the basis of "reciprocity" — which they said the other side had never accomplished.

Leaving the door open to further talks, though, the Cabinet also urged the start of final-status negotiations to conclude the peace process and determine the final borders of the Palestinian Authority.

It was a call made before by the Netanyahu government and rejected by the Palestinians, who want Israel to carry out the concrete actions spelled out in the 1995 Interim Agreement.

For many observers here and abroad, there was little promise to Israel's call to suspend the interim process and move into permanent-status talks. If Albright was contemplating revamping the peace process to focus on the final-status issues, she faces a daunting challenge.

The Israeli government is ready to cede at most half of the West Bank, while the Palestinian Authority wants a minimum of 90 percent.

At least one Israeli minister was not yet ready to give up. Foreign Minister David Levy made it clear he was not in favor of announcing the death of the peace process — both for tactical and substantive reasons.

He warned that U.S. opinion, currently sympathetic toward Israel because of its suffering, would grow cold if Israel was perceived as having delivered the death blow to the peace process.

Meanwhile, a division has emerged in the Cabinet over Israel's continued presence in southern Lebanon.

Last week's loss, the Israel Defense Force's heaviest from a single military operation in 12 years, triggered renewed calls for an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon — even from some hawks in the Netanyahu government.

The anguished debate over the constant loss of Israeli blood in Lebanon has taken place before but it welled up anew in the wake of the failed commando action.

Military sources said this week the infiltration attempt was botched because there had been no prior intelligence on whether the route taken by the commandos was mined or whether Hezbollah fighters were in the area.

Another IDF officer was killed Sunday morning by a Hezbollah mortar shell in southern Lebanon.

As a result of the latest deaths, Science Minister Michael Eitan of Likud clashed openly with Netanyahu, insisting on his own right to advocate unilateral withdrawal publicly.

And former Labor Minister Yossi Beilin announced Sunday the creation of a new grassroots movement committed to a unilateral withdrawal — independent of any negotiation with Syria or even Lebanon.

That move drew sharp criticism from Beilin's own party and from the ranks of the army.

But by the same token, there are Labor and Likud members who openly support Beilin — and many others who privately encourage him.

Among those sharing Beilin's stance was none other than Likud hawk Ariel Sharon, who was quoted in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot as saying that Israel should consider planning a withdrawal from southern Lebanon "without any tie to talks with Syria and without paying any diplomatic or security price to Syria in exchange for our pain in Lebanon."

Netanyahu sharply criticized his government members' public statements on the matter.

He was quoted as telling the Cabinet that "the rash talk over a hasty Lebanon withdrawal, under pressure, only encourages Hezbollah."