Middle East Accord: Albright the catalyst for peace as Israel and Palestinians go to wire

HER FORBIDDING air, bulky figure and jaunty black hat gave Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, the appearance of a main lead from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado as she alighted from her plane at the start of her Middle East tour. It has been a curious trip. "I've never known anything like it," said one diplomat in Tel Aviv. "The Americans were adamant that they would not be drawn into the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but they have done just that. Albright has been mediating ever since she got off her plane in Alexandria."

After a day spent in Egypt waiting for Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, to sign a revised version of the Wye Agreement, a testy Ms Albright was looking increasingly like the best man at a wedding where the bride and groom have not turned up.

She flew to Israel and spent three hours yesterday morning locked in talks with Mr Barak. "Both sides are playing the Americans for their own ends," said one observer. "The Palestinians want the Americans to mediate because they are so much weaker than the Israelis. Arafat has had some success here."

The focus of Ms Albright's visit to the Middle East was originally meant to be the so-called Syrian track. Ms Albright intended to go to Syria tomorrow to edge the government towards starting negotiations with Israel. But in the days before her trip started it was the Palestinian issue that once again came to the fore.

Mr Barak appears to have got his way over releasing no more than 350 Palestinian prisoners. But he has paid a diplomatic price. The relief felt in Washington when he defeated Benjamin Netanyahu in the Israeli election is subsiding. American officials are beginning to wonder how different Mr Barak is from his predecessor.

Yoel Marcus, a commentator in the daily Haaretz, says Mr Barak's "adoption of a Don Corleone tone in making an offer you can't refuse damaged the process of working towards mutual goodwill". He adds that when the Israeli- Palestinian diplomatic process "turns into a haggling match in a Persian bazaar, the Palestinians have the upper hand over us".

Here Mr Barak may be committing the same mistake as Mr Netanyahu. Mr Arafat has few cards compared with Israel. He rules a collection of isolated cantons. He has no military option. The 2.5 million Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza - their freedom of movement controlled by Israel - are more impoverished than they were at the start of the Oslo peace process in 1993.

But Mr Arafat's agreement is necessary for any deal to be concluded. By refusing to release a final 44 Palestinian prisoners, Mr Barak forced Ms Albright on Thursday to exude forced optimism with increasing desperation before rushing to Jerusalem to see the Israeli leader. If Mr Barak had shown more flexibility, he would be in a much stronger position in future to reduce the US role.

Even with an agreement on the implementation of the Wye accords, American involvement is not likely to diminish. In theory, Mr Barak's position is that he wants to separate Israelis and Palestinians. But in reality, the handover of 40 per cent of the West Bank to Mr Arafat's full or partial control merely complicates the mosaic of competing authorities on this small piece of land. Fine highways linking Jewish settlements curl between Palestinian villages, creating continuing friction.

Under the version of the Wye Agreement, known as Wye 2, now being implemented this friction will not subside. The Palestinians get more land, but no settlements are removed. There will be two safe-passage routes between the West Bank and Gaza but real freedom of movement will depend on the stringency of Israeli security measures.

Ms Albright will now try to focus on the Syrian part of her trip. Syria warmly welcomed Mr Barak's election and heavily publicised its instructions to small and moribund guerrilla groups based in Damascus to desist from armed attacks on Israel. Activity by Hizbollah, the Islamic resistance to Israel in Lebanon, was curtailed.

In theory, a deal between Syria and Israel should be easier than one between the Palestinians and Israel. A treaty could be signed whereby Israel withdraws from the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon in exchange for demilitarisation and a full peace treaty. The Palestinians, by contrast, with half their seven million people refugees, are unlikely to be satisfied by any treaty, however final it is intended to be.

The Syrians have tactical reasons for expressing their willingness to negotiate with Israel: they want to get off the US list of states supporting terrorism. But they have said little to indicate that they really believe Israel is willing to leave Lebanon and the Golan. As time passes in Israel the gloss on Mr Barak's election victory will also diminish and his highly fragmented coalition government will be more difficult to hold together. This will reduce his ability to show flexibility in negotiations with Damascus.

Not that there has been much sign of Israeli flexibility in the talks with the Palestinians over Wye 2. Negotiations start next year on a framework for negotiating the final status of Palestinians. But Haim Ramon, an Israeli cabinet minister, said last week that he saw no chance of an agreement on Jerusalem or Palestinian refugees, two of the most important issues.

Ms Albright can claim to have successfully brokered the agreement between Mr Arafat and Mr Barak that she will witness over the next 24 hours. But the great labour it has taken to produce Wye 2 - itself the renegotiation of a renegotiation - shows that her portly form will be back in the Middle East before long.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
News
Pistorius leaves Pretoria High Court to be taken to prison
news

Voices
Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014
voices

Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

News
news

Endangered species spotted in a creek in the Qinling mountains

Life and Style
tech

Company says data is only collected under 'temporary' identities that are discarded every 15 minutes

News
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Life and Style
health

Some experiencing postnatal depression don't realise there is a problem. What can be done?

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
News
i100
Sport
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£21000 - £31000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Geography Teacher ? ...

Cover Supervisor

£50 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an experienced Cover Super...

Cover Supervisor

£50 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Randstad Education is looking to e...

Science Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Science Teacher - Maternit...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album