Hard decisions needed in Mid-East, says Albright

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The Independent Online
Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, said she had been unable to make significant progress during her three-day visit to Israel and would return only when leaders "have made hard decisions".

Israeli and Palestinian delegations are to meet in Washington and New York later in the month for talks, but Mrs Albright said: "I wished this trip had produced larger steps, because they are needed."

During the first half of her visit, Mrs Albright pleased Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, by focussing on the need for Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, to guarantee Israel's security by arresting members of Hamas, the Islamic militant organisation.

But Mrs Albright then surprised the Israeli government by saying that "Israel should refrain from unilateral acts, including what Palestinians perceive as the provocative expansion of settlements, land confiscation, home demolitions and confiscation of IDs". The American demand was swiftly rejected. David Bar-Illan, Mr Netanyahu's aide, said: "We cannot freeze settlements any more than we can freeze life."

Just how easily the diplomatic vacuum can be filled by events on the ground was shown on the last day of Mrs Albright's visit, when the military wing of Hamas accused Israel of kidnapping one of its leaders in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, and threatened to retaliate with attacks on Israel. A fax from the Izzedine el-Qassem brigades sent to news agencies says: "Israeli intelligence ... kidnapped late at night the hero Dr Ibrahim al-Maqadmeh."

This was strenuously denied by Israel. Shai Bazak, the Prime Minister's spokesman, said: "You can say unequivocally that Israel did not kidnap Maqadmeh."

A kidnapping by Israel in a Palestinian-controlled area would also end any chance of Mr Arafat moving against Hamas. Despite her public stance, Mrs Albright is said by US officials to accept that Mr Arafat cannot move systematically against the militants unless Israel improves the political climate. In practice, this would mean curtailing Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the release of prisoners and further troop withdrawals.

Mrs Albright flew to Syria yesterday to meet President Hafez al-Assad, but progress in talks between Israel and Syria looks unlikely since Mr Netanyahu says he will not return the Golan Heights, which were captured by Israel in 1967. He may, however, wish to show flexibility with Syria in order to divert American attention from the crisis in his relations with the Palestinians.

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