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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Australia vs New Zealand live
cricket Follow over-by-over coverage as rivals New Zealand and Australia face off
News
Zayn has become the first member to leave One Direction. 'I have to do what feels right in my heart,' he said
peopleWe wince at anguish of fans, but his 1D departure shows the perils of fame in the social media age
Life and Style
Researchers found that just 10 one-minute swill-and-spit sessions are enough to soften tooth enamel and make teeth vulnerable to erosion
health
News
i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
The Regent Street Cinema’s projection room in the 1920s
film
News
Leah Devine is only the ninth female to have made the Young Magician of the Year final since the contest began more than 50 years
peopleMeet the 16-year-old who has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year
News
Jonathan Anderson was born in Northern Ireland but now based between London, where he presents a line named JW Anderson
peopleBritish designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing