Albright raises the stakes for peace

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The Independent Online
CONFRONTED by the total collapse of the Middle East "peace process" in London yesterday, the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, last night took the dangerous gamble of buying precious time by upping the stakes.

She offered the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, a meeting with President Clinton in Washington in five days' time - on condition they accept American proposals that include a move to final status talks and probably severe restriction on the amount of land the Palestinians can ever hope to regain from the Israelis.

The offer - totally deforming the original 1993 Oslo agreement which envisages a series of extensive Israeli withdrawals before discussions on Jerusalem, settlements and refugees - is a sign of Mrs Albright's desperation. Indeed, it is a sign of Mr Arafat's desperation that he appears to have accepted it. Mr Netanyahu returned to Israel yesterday "to consult with his cabinet" - but without accepting.

There was some confusion as to whether Mrs Albright - who was both confused and hesitant in replies to journalists in London last night - understood the full significance of what she had announced. A later Downing Street briefing suggested that the move to what the Secretary of State called "accelerated permanent status negotiations" included talks on further Israeli "withdrawals" (sic), security and "confidence-building measures". But that is not what the permanent status negotiations in the Oslo agreement say.

The original document lists the topics for decision as "Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and co- operation with other neighbours, and other issues of common interest."

For almost a year, Mr Netanyahu himself has been pressing the Palestinians to move straight to the final-status talks, meanwhile dropping discussions of further withdrawals.

Is this really what Mr Arafat has accepted? As one Palestinian journalist put it last night: "Poor Abu Amar [Arafat's name], he'll never sell this to the Palestinians."

During the day, it was said that the Americans - whose compromise proposal for the next Israeli withdrawal had settled on a 13 per cent (Israel wants only 9 per cent) evacuation - had produced a new Israeli figure of 11 per cent. Palestinian sources suggested that the Americans urged Arafat to accept the new statistic with a "promise" to achieve another 2 per cent withdrawal afterwards. The PLO turned the offer down.

In reality, Mrs Albright - and Tony Blair - have understood that Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat agree on only one thing: a desire that the other should be blamed for the destruction of the Middle East "peace process". The invitation to Washington is thus intended to force both sides to show their desire for "peace" by turning up.

Mrs Albright momentarily appeared to support this idea by threatening that "if agreement is not reached, we will have to examine our approach to the peace process." But fear not, she then added that "we are not going to walk away from a peace process because it's important to the US, to Israel and to our friends in the Middle East". In the Middle East, however, events have a habit of taking over when negotiations collapse.

Albright's fear, page 10