News Analysis: U.S. now admits that peace process has come to halt

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JERUSALEM — Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's decision to go public with her frustration over the Middle East peace process represented a change in U.S. policy — at least on the tactical level.

But it is not yet clear whether it presages a policy review on a more substantive level.

After meeting last weekend with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Albright said the peace process had ground to a halt.

Many observers would argue that her bleak assessment — while out of character — was no lie.

The peace process has, in the view of these observers, been stalled for a full year, ever since the Hebron Agreement was concluded in January 1997.

The novelty — and it is an ominous one — is that Albright, in public and private comments after her visits to Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Ramallah, appeared to cast aside the accepted diplomatic practice of depicting such high-level conversation in relatively optimistic terms.

Albright told both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat that she was "sick and tired" of the two sides merely trading recriminations and presenting Washington with laundry lists of the other party's purported infringements of earlier accords.

More importantly, she made the tone and substance of her remarks to the two leaders public knowledge through well-placed leaks in the media.

During a Jerusalem news conference wrapping up her brief effort here, she spoke of her frustration and noted bleakly that the peace process had been stuck over the same issues "for frankly too long."

The only ray of light she could offer was an arrangement for lower-ranking officials from the two sides to go to Washington next week for yet more talks.

But this is a dim ray indeed, since it would be hard to imagine that lower-ranking officials could succeed where the highest ones — President Clinton met with Netanyahu and Arafat separately in Washington last month — have plainly failed.

Albright's public utterances would seem to preclude the indefinite continuation of visits to the region by Dennis Ross, the U.S. special Middle East coordinator. In the past, such visits were occasionally punctuated by higher-level American efforts that likewise have produced no progress.

Indeed, developments this week indicated that the peace process could be in serious danger:

*During clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian demonstrators near Bethlehem, Israeli and Palestinian security forces briefly trained their weapons on each other. They later backed off from an armed confrontation.

*The Palestinian Authority has been stockpiling weapons and building fortified positions in the event of an armed confrontation with Israel, according to news reports.

*The Israeli media cited assessments within the country's security establishment that Arafat would opt for violence if he became convinced that the political process had reached a dead end.

*A teenage yeshiva student was wounded in a stabbing attack on his way to the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. Police suspected that an Arab was responsible for the attack.

Amid these developments, a sizable majority of Israelis are concerned about the deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, according to a poll conducted by Tel Aviv University.

Among the 500 Israelis surveyed, 83 percent said they were "fairly worried" or "very worried" about the continued inability of negotiators to move the peace process forward.

If, as Albright declared, it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to make the "tough decisions," then the further treading of water by American diplomats only defers that moment of decision making.

U.S. policy-makers believe they have crafted a plan, based on the "reciprocity principle" that Netanyahu advocates, which can facilitate a series of gradual Israel redeployments from the West Bank linked to Palestinian steps to meet the commitments they made when they signed earlier accords.

But the Palestinians insist that the 13-to-15-percent withdrawal envisaged by Washington as the next redeployment is inadequate.

The Israelis insist it is too much.

Israel insists, moreover, that such a withdrawal must be the last land transfer until a permanent-status agreement is negotiated and concluded.

The Palestinians flatly reject that scenario and insist that the three further redeployments spelled out in the Oslo process — none of them implemented yet — continue to proceed as originally laid down, in tandem with the accelerated schedule for permanent-status talks that Israel has proposed.

Plainly, this is not the moment for a profound and comprehensive American policy review. The Clinton administration, and especially its foreign policy agencies, are preoccupied with the Iraqi crisis.

Possibly, though, if force is used against Iraq — not a solitary strike but a sustained military action — then the results of that event will directly affect American thinking on the Israeli-Arab peace process.

Granted, Albright was at pains to separate her frustrations with Israel regarding the peace process from her declaration that the United States will stand by Israel should Saddam Hussein decide to again rain missiles on the Jewish state.

But down the road, when the Iraqi crisis is resolved, its outcome will doubtlessly spur the Clinton administration into making some tough decisions of its own.

On the Israeli right, now stronger than ever in Netanyahu's Cabinet, the hope and expectation is that the U.S. decision will be to back off and look for more promising areas of foreign policy in which Clinton can score points.

These circles see Clinton's domestic problems as weakening his ability and his resolve.

But after a military drubbing of Iraq, or after an 11th-hour compromise solution with Baghdad, Washington may feel the need — and the strength — to expend new energy on breaking the Israeli-Palestinian logjam. Also, Clinton and Albright may redouble their efforts to attain a redeployment package.

Therefore, now that the Israeli-Arab peace process is publicly acknowledged to be at a standstill, the Iraq crisis provides a temporary respite from fruitless diplomacy.

In the longer term, however, it could prove to be a turning point.

The Gulf War, backed by a coalition of Arab states, paved the way to the Madrid peace conference, which some analysts regard as the icebreaking event that eventually led to the Oslo Accords.

This time, the coalition against Saddam looks sadly depleted.

Still, America's use of armed force and the resultant political cataclysm — or an embarrassing rift with America's allies in the Arab world — could spur momentum in Washington and in the region to drive Israel and the Palestinians forward.