US Drive in Mideast Hits Speed Bumps

Albright heads to Israel next month as US backing of an Israeli plan on talks raises doubts among Palestinians.

The United States may be poised to drive home the Middle East peace process. But its principals appear to be riding the brakes, locked into an old cycle of demands and conditional offers.

Israelis and Palestinians have been taking only "baby steps" toward resuming peace talks, says a senior American official here, but the Clinton administration plans to prod both sides into fast-track negotiation when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visits next month.

Many roadblocks stand in the way of a race toward so-called "final status" talks, which are to address the most troublesome issues of the Oslo peace accords - including the control over Jerusalem, return of Palestinian refugees, and the borders between Israel and a would-be Palestinian entity.

In the week since US peace envoy Dennis Ross left the region with a new "security mechanism" in place, neither side has done all that Washington says must be done before Ms. Albright confirms her tentative plans to arrive in September.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has refused to launch a crackdown on Islamic militants - demanded by Israel and supported by the US - and instead convened a "national unity" conference yesterday and today with the very leaders his Israeli and American critics say should be imprisoned. "All options are open to us," Mr. Arafat said in Gaza City.

And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - who faces increasing pressure at home to deliver on his "peace with security" campaign pledge - has so far released only a third of the $40 million in revenues Israel owes the Palestinian Authority, an unprecedented use of economic sanctions that the US has rejected as "unproductive."

Also, a recent flareup in cross-border fighting between Israel and the Syrian-backed Hizbullah fighters in south Lebanon has deflected attention from the Israeli-Palestinian crisis that erupted after a July 30 suicide bombing, which killed 14 Israeli civilians in a crowded marketplace. More than 40 Katyusha rockets fell on northern Israel Tuesday morning and were answered yesterday by an Israeli air force attack on a Hizbullah base, raising the likelihood that Albright will also stop in Syria to work at resuscitating Israeli-Syrian talks when she comes to the region for her first visit next month.

What 'final status' means

Washington has recently embraced the idea, originally proposed by Mr. Netanyahu almost a year ago, that negotiators should skip directly to hammering out the final Oslo accords.

Though such talks should have already begun, they have been held up by terror attacks, such as last month's bombing, Netanyahu's election, and fundamental disagreements over the accords.

Critical portions of the interim accords have yet to be implemented: Israel must make three more troop withdrawals from the West Bank, and allow the opening of a Palestinian airport, seaport, and "safe passage" between the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel says that Arafat must first live up to his commitments to fight groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which supported last month's bombing and may be responsible for it. But the US, Israel, and the Palestinians seem to have different interpretations of what moving to final status means.

Washington, US diplomatic sources here say, may be buying into Netanyahu's offer to press on toward the finish line because of fears that the Oslo process could not survive another year of virtual stagnation and violence.

Some officials suggest that the Clinton administration has been hoping for a successful breakthrough in the talks by September, when a deadline for an Israeli handover of West Bank land to Palestinians will likely come and go, and when new violence is feared on the anniversary of last September's gun battles between Israeli and Palestinian police.

The senior American official told reporters that the accelerated formula would "not [be] a substitute for both parties' obligations in the interim agreements."

American role questioned

But Netanyahu may have other goals in mind in leapfrogging to final status negotiations. One of his main criticisms of the accords is that Israel is forced to give away all its best assets in the interim phase - namely land - and will therefore have no cards left to trade during the last round of bargaining. Netanyahu says that rather than dragging his feet on the accords, it would be better to settle the big-ticket disputes as soon as possible.

"The American position is that the final-status talks will eliminate many of the irritations that seem to come out of vagueness and bickering of the interim phase," says David Bar-Illan, Netanyahu's director of communications and policy planning.

Many Palestinians bristle at the US initiative, saying it confirms their suspicions that Washington is adopting Israeli positions and failing to be an impartial referee.

Others, who were once encouraged by the "early [Palestinian] empowerment" theory of the step-by-step process, say they will agree to accelerating talks only if everything agreed on in previous accords is implemented concurrently.

"If we skip the interim phase, what guarantees will we have that they will honor their commitments?" asks Hanan Ashrawi, an Arafat minister. "We are quite willing to start final-status talks simultaneously while Israel implements other agreements. If not, it undermines the process."

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