Albright tries to push sides closer

JERUSALEM, June 5 (JTA) — Caution was the prevailing sentiment as U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright attempted this week to nudge Israel and the Palestinians closer to a final peace agreement.

Speaking after a brief meeting Monday with Prime Minister Ehud Barak in Jerusalem, both Albright and the Israeli leader underscored the hopes and difficulties involved in seizing what they described as a “historic opportunity” for peace.

During a joint news conference with Barak, Albright said negotiators for the two sides were trying “to address the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

After Israeli-Palestinian negotiators missed two deadlines for coming up with an outline of a final peace accord — and with the deadline for reaching the accord itself set for mid-September — Albright and Barak acknowledged the difficulties that lie ahead.

Barak said there is now a “short window” of opportunity, adding that the coming months would determine whether the two sides are ready to make the necessary concessions.

Albright said the recent Israeli troop withdrawal from Lebanon presented a new opportunity to bring peace to the region, but she stressed it would not be easy.

“This can only be achieved through negotiations. There is no other way,” she said.

“But if Israelis and Palestinians are willing to accept that neither side can get 100 percent of what it wants, that each side must address the needs of the other in a spirit of partnership,” she added, “with time then they can succeed.”

Albright, who was in the region for the first time since December, was slated to meet with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat on Tuesday.

Albright’s visit was intended to pave the way for a summit before the end of the month among President Clinton, Barak and Arafat.

During a meeting last week with Clinton in Lisbon, Barak said he did not think the time is ripe for the summit.

But one member of Barak’s Cabinet, Haim Ramon, this week held out the possibility that such a meeting could still take place.

Israel and the Palestinians have made slow progress in the final-status talks, which deal with such issues as the future of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees and final borders.

Back-channel talks between the sides — dubbed the “Stockholm” talks for the city that hosted some of the discussions — were opened in an effort to bridge these gaps.

But so far, Israel and the Palestinians have spent most of the time airing grievances, and in recent weeks they have traded accusations of dragging out the negotiations.

In a message aimed at reminding the Palestinians that they are not the only show in town, Barak said in Lisbon last week that the dormant Israeli- Syrian talks could still be revived.

Signaling just such a possibility, Albright was scheduled to meet Wednesday with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa in Cairo to discuss the Israeli-Syrian track.

Jordan’s King Abdullah also spoke this week of reviving this track.

There is a “tremendous window of opportunity” on the Israeli-Syrian peace front, he told Newsweek.

“My impression from Syria is the door from their side is still very open,” Abdullah said, adding that the March summit in Geneva between Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Assad broke down because of a “misunderstanding of each other’s position.”

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