Albright declares Mid-East progress

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The Independent Online
AFTER LENGTHY discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, said yesterday that she had made "substantial progress" in laying the groundwork for an agreement at the Washington summit next week.

At the end of the talks at Erez at the entrance to Gaza, Mrs Albright said: "I am more than satisfied. In fact I am pleasantly surprised. This new spirit was very evident. Our meetings were more congenial than I expected."

The Secretary of State said the "building blocks" were in place to end the deadlock over the implementation of the present phase of the Oslo accords under which Israel will make a partial withdrawal from the West Bank. In return, Israel wants the Palestinian side to undertake increased security measures against militants.

In an optimistic summary of the result of her meeting with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, Mrs Albright said: "We have made significant and substantial progress on the further redeployment, security, the Gaza industrial estate and the airport, the formation of an anti-incitement committee and activation of people-to-people programmes."

Mrs Albright spoke of "a new sense of urgency" during her four hours of discussions with the two leaders, though the urgency was probably greatest on the American side. A successful summit on 15 October will allow President Bill Clinton to present himself as a successful international statesman at a time when Congress is considering his impeachment. The summit will also give him a boost three weeks before the mid-term Congressional elections.

Mrs Albright injected a note of caution into her optimism."There are still very many hard problems out there that the leaders themselves are very much aware of, and they know that they are the ones that have to make the hard decisions."

Her caution reflects both real fears that an agreement will not be reached in Washington and her desire for President Clinton to be able to claim as much credit as possible for success at the summit. "The President is going to be very much involved in a lot of the detailed work," Mrs Albright said.

After the Oslo accords of 1993, with which the US had little involvement, President Clinton was quick to milk the agreement for all the credit he could get by presiding over a public signing ceremony on the White House lawn. He has showed less interest in seeing the agreement implemented.

Mrs Albright noted that one sign of a new spirit of amity was the fact that Mr Netanyahu became the first Israeli leader to enter the Palestinian enclave of Gaza when he joined her and Mr Arafat at the latter's guest house for lunch.

The "people-to-people programmes", however, are likely to be seen by Palestinians as window-dressing.

Around the West Bank city of Hebron, home to 120,000 Palestinians, Israeli checkpoints prevent people leaving the city except by unguarded dirt tracks. Mr Netanyahu chose the first day of Mrs Albright's visit to announce that Israel would erect permanent buildings at a Jewish settlement in the heart of Hebron.