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Why Albright brought only darkness

Arabs expected little from the US Secretary of State, writes Robert Fisk, and they were not disappointed
Washington hard-hitting, tough-talking, shoot-from-the-hip Secretary of State Madeleine Albright flew into the Middle East last week - and turned into a mouse.

Every Arab fear - that she would faithfully support Israel in its claim that Yasser Arafat was destroying the "peace process" by failing to "root out terrorists"; that she would virtually pass over Israel's settlement- building and land confiscation, and then spend only a few hours in Syria - proved true. If the "peace process" was not already dead, Mrs Albright has succeeded in burying it deep in the ground.

After rightly condemning the wicked suicide bombings in Jerusalem and visiting the survivors, the US Secretary of State ignored Israel's unprovoked air assault on the Lebanese army on Friday night which killed six soldiers and wounded six others. Nor did she have a word of compassion for the 43-year old Lebanese woman - as innocent as the girls slaughtered in Jerusalem - who was killed by the Israelis in the same helicopter attack.

Indeed, when Mrs Albright did eventually criticise the Israelis in the mildest of terms for building settlements and seizing Arab land - she described this total abnegation of the Oslo accords merely as "unhelpful" - the Israelis, having quickly understood her weakness, dismissed her remarks. Settlement-building, they said, could no more be stopped "than life itself". Whatever that means, it was in line with the general tenor of Mrs Albright's trip; one US paper described the settlements and land confiscations in the occupied territories as "viewed as provocative by Arabs" - Arabs apparently being more upset when their land is stolen from them than other mortals would be in the same situation.

The Arab press noted how Mrs Albright - in her initial demand to Mr Arafat to "root out terror" - referred to the Jewish settlements built against all international law on Arab land as a process of "building houses", a remark of such deceit that even Arab leaders were taken aback. Her point - that killing innocents was a more important issue - thus carefully obscured the fact that it was just such acts of land confiscation and the demolition of Arab homes that prompted the suicide bombers. It was left to the mother of one of the Israeli victims to say that Israel's policies appeared to have caused her daughter's death. Such bravery was not possessed by Mrs Albright.

So blithely did the Israelis regard her visit that they staged their night raid on the Lebanese village of Arab Selim even as she was still in Damascus. It was presumably intended as revenge for the action mounted by the Lebanese army against the Israeli raid on Lebanon last Friday in which 13 Israeli soldiers were killed after falling into a Hizbollah ambush. The message to the Lebanese army appears to be simple: they must not defend their country against attack by Israel.

In Damascus, President Hafez al-Assad was trying, with great care, to explain the principles of the Madrid 1991 summit and the UN security council resolutions - land for peace - which were supposed to be the foundation of the "peace process" and for which Syria signed up six years ago. There have been no talks between Israel and Syria since Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party came to power 15 months ago.

If Mrs Albright's mission had been intended to draw Syria back into the talks - an unlikely task ever since Mr Netanyahu announced that he would not return the Golan Heights to Syria - she failed miserably. President Assad said he wanted to continue contacts with the US, but that was all. The Secretary of State flew on to Egypt yesterday to listen to President Hosni Mubarak's foreboding of disasters to come if Israel does not end its settlement-building.

Egypt had urged Mrs Albright to deal as toughly with Mr Netanyahu as with Mr Arafat. So had the Israeli Labour Party. So had the French government, which last week characterised the Israeli government's policies as "catastrophic". Even the President of Israel, Ezer Weizman, urged Mrs Albright to come down hard on the Prime Minister. But - perhaps aware that pro-Israeli members of the US Congress and Senate regard her as not being pro-Israeli enough - she flunked.

The only remark seemingly intended to show neutrality was an odd reference to the Israelis and Palestinians as "trapeze artists", a phrase that left both sides bemused. On leaving Jerusalem, Mrs Albright said that she would return when both had decided to talk again - a comment that was as pointless as it was powerless since only American pressure will force Messrs Arafat and Netanyahu to negotiate.

True, the Arabs had not expected much from Mrs Albright. But for much of her time in Jerusalem, she sounded more like an Israeli government spokesman than US Secretary of State. And what she left behind her was a precipice over which Arab and Israelis might fall at any moment.