JERUSALEM, Sept. 7 (JTA) – If there had been some modest hopes for the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a series of devastating blows to Israel, and the government”s response to them, have lowered expectations to rock bottom. The most optimistic prognosis regarding Albright”s trip, her first to the Middle East as America”s top diplomat, is that if she can conduct a “crisis control”” exercise, she will have succeeded in laying the groundwork for a more productive shuttle later in the fall. Albright, scheduled to arrive Wednesday in Israel, will find a nation grieving over two tragedies that occurred within a 24-hour period. In the first of those tragedies, three suicide bombers detonated near- simultaneous explosions Sept. 4 at Jerusalem”s Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. Four Israelis, among them three teen-age girls, were killed and more than 190 others were wounded in the attack, which Israeli investigators have linked to the July 30 twin suicide bombing in the nearby Mahane Yehuda market that killed 15 Israelis. The second tragic blow came just hours later, when 10 Israeli naval commandos and a doctor were killed in an unsuccessful nighttime operation between the Lebanese cities of Sidon and Tyre, north of the security zone. Another commando was declared missing and presumed dead. The loss, the Israel Defense Force”s heaviest from a single military operation in 12 years, triggered renewed calls for an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon – even from some hawks in the Netanyahu government. Hezbollah members were photographed over the weekend displaying body parts that they claimed belonged to the missing Israeli soldier. Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said he would be willing to hand over the remains in return for Hezbollah prisoners held by Israel. The IDF created a committee of inquiry to determine if an intelligence leak had led to the attack on the commandos by Hezbollah forces and the Lebanese army. To cap a nightmarish weekend, another IDF officer was killed Sunday morning by a Hezbollah mortar shell in southern Lebanon. Recognizing the profound affect last week”s attack had on the Israeli public, Albright decided to add a visit to the Ben Yehuda mall to her schedule. She had originally planned to speak to the Israeli electorate directly, sidestepping the Netanyahu government in hopes of coaxing from the public a more generous view of the endangered Israeli-Palestinian peace process. She is expected to speak words of comfort, but it is hard to see how in such a short time she can rebuild any of the tattered trust between the two peoples and their leaderships, or persuade Israeli public opinion, deep in national mourning, that peace still has a chance. The government moved quickly after last week”s triple suicide bombing to block any American pressure for concessions or any overtures by Washington aimed at domestic opinion here. In a Cabinet communique, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced, in effect, the end of the Oslo peace process – on the eve of its fourth anniversary. It was on Sept. 13, 1993, that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat exchanged their historic handshake on the White House lawn, setting the process into motion. Putting the brakes on that process, the Cabinet statement said there would be no further Israeli redeployments from rural areas of the West Bank, a move that was slated to take place early this month under the terms of the Hebron Agreement signed in January. The Palestinians regard this step as essential for any further progress in the peace process. The Cabinet statement appeared to imply that if the Palestinian Authority fought terrorism to Israel”s satisfaction, the process could yet be put back on track. But top officials in the Prime Minister”s Office confirmed that, as far as they were concerned, this was indeed the burial of a peace process they had always opposed and that Netanyahu had only reluctantly acceded to on the basis of “reciprocity”” – something, they insisted, that the other side had never accomplished. The Cabinet statement also urged the start of final-status negotiations to conclude the peace process and determine the final borders of the Palestinian Authority. But for many observers here and abroad there was little promise to that call. The Israeli government, ready to cede at most half of the West Bank, is so far away from the Palestinian Authority, which wants at least 90 percent of it, that it is almost impossible to see Albright or anyone else launching a meaningful negotiation from those opening positions. The leaders of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, meeting Sunday in Cairo to coordinate strategy before Albright”s visit, issued a joint statement calling on Israel to uphold the signed agreements. During her trip, Albright is expected to press both sides to make concessions. The Israeli daily Ha”aretz quoted American officials as saying that Albright would seek a “mini-agreement”” that would oblige the self-rule authority to take a number of concrete steps to fight terrorism and to increase security cooperation with Israel. In turn, Israel would agree to a series of confidence-building measures, including a commitment to temporarily freeze its construction projects on disputed land. The peace process with the Palestinians and Israeli policy in southern Lebanon were debated Sunday at a stormy Cabinet meeting. Foreign Minister David Levy made it clear he was not in favor of announcing the death of the peace process – both for tactical and substantive reasons. He warned that U.S. opinion, currently sympathetic toward Israel because of its suffering, would grow cold if Israel was perceived as having delivered the death blow to the peace process. Regarding policy in Lebanon, Science Minister Michael Eitan of Likud clashed openly with Netanyahu, insisting on his own right to publicly advocate unilateral withdrawal. This anguished debate over the constant loss of Israeli blood in Lebanon has taken place before, but it welled up anew throughout the country in the wake of the botched commando action. Former Labor Minister Yossi Beilin announced Sunday the creation of a new grass-roots movement committed to a unilateral withdrawal – independent of any negotiation with Syria or even Lebanon. This move drew sharp criticism from within Beilin”s own party and from within the ranks of the army. But by the same token, there are Labor and Likud members who openly support Beilin – and many others who privately encourage him. Among those sharing Beilin”s stance was none other than Likud hawk Ariel Sharon, who was quoted in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot as saying that Israel should consider planning a withdrawal from southern Lebanon “without any tie to talks with Syria and without paying any diplomatic or security price to Syria in exchange for our pain in Lebanon.”” Netanyahu sharply criticized his government members” public statements on the matter. He was quoted as telling the Cabinet that “the rash talk over a hasty Lebanon withdrawal, under pressure, only encourages Hezbollah.”” (JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)
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