JERUSALEM, Sept. 8 (JTA) – Four years after Israeli and Palestinian leaders shook hands on the White House lawn, the question reverberates through the Middle East: Is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process dead? This was the question U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright confronted when she visited the Middle East this week. With Israeli-Palestinian negotiations suspended since March, and each side accusing the other of violating the accords signed on Sept. 13, 1993, Albright was faced with the challenge of finding a way to revive that process or revamp it. But as she arrived in Israel on her first visit as America”s top diplomat, she encountered a dispirited country grieving the losses from a triple suicide attack in Jerusalem and a failed commando operation in Lebanon – two tragedies that stunned the nation. Four Israelis, among them three teen-age girls, were killed and more than 190 others were wounded Sept. 4, when three suicide bombers detonated near-simultaneous explosions at Jerusalem”s Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. A fifth Israeli died Monday from injuries sustained in the attack. Less than 12 hours after the suicide attack, a failed raid into Lebanon early Friday morning by an elite unit of Navy commandos left 11 members of the unit dead, with a 12th missing and presumed dead. In the wake of these developments, the already low expectations for Albright”s visit further diminished. Observers said the visit would be considered a success if she could manage to control the crisis, and thereby lay the groundwork for a more productive visit later in the fall. Albright, confronted with what is arguably the lowest point in the peace process since the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat first shook hands, had to press both sides to make concessions. The American formula for restarting the moribund talks, according to the Israeli daily Ha”aretz, had been to arrange 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. It was Israel”s decision in March to begin building a new Jewish neighborhood at Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem that led to the peace process stalemate. But, given last week”s tragedies, the Israeli government seemed unwilling to make any concessions. 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. 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. The Palestinians this week arrested dozens of suspected Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists. But, in a reflection of the ebb in trust between the two sides, Israeli officials characterized the arrests as a mere display intended to show Albright that they were serious about cracking down on terror. Top officials in the Prime Minister”s Office confirmed that, as far as they were concerned, the peace process was over. It was a process that 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. But, leaving the door open to further talks, the Cabinet also urged the start of final-status negotiations to conclude the peace process and determine the final borders of the Palestinian Authority. It was a call made before by the Netanyahu government and rejected by the Palestinians, who want Israel to carry out the steps outlined in the negotiated interim process that involves a series of concrete actions to be taken in advance of the final-status talks. But for many observers here and abroad there was little promise to Israel”s call to suspend the interim process and move into permanent- status talks. If Albright was contemplating revamping the peace process to focus on the final-status issues, she faces a daunting challenge. The Israeli government is ready to cede at most half of the West Bank, while the Palestinian Authority wants at least 90 percent. At least one Israeli minister was not yet ready to give up. 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. There also has emerged a division in the Cabinet over Israel”s continued presence in southern Lebanon. Last week”s 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. This anguished debate over the constant loss of Israeli blood in Lebanon has taken place before, but it welled up anew in the wake of the failed commando action. Military sources said this week that the infiltration attempt was botched because there had been no prior intelligence on whether the route taken by the commandos was mined, or whether Hezbollah fighters were in the area. Another IDF officer was killed Sunday morning by a Hezbollah mortar shell in southern Lebanon. Science Minister Michael Eitan of Likud clashed openly with Netanyahu, insisting on his own right to publicly advocate unilateral withdrawal. 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 Beilin”s own party and from 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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