Albright's Small Steps

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did the best anyone could have hoped on her swing through the Middle East. She put down the right markers.

She led off with stern calls for greater Palestinian efforts to restrain terrorism. This was needed for a variety of reasons, not least to address Israeli sensitivities after the recent suicide bombings. But also because Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has to understand the impact of his actions and pronouncements - not just at home, but in Israel and in the halls of Congress. No more public embraces of Hamas leaders, please. Emphasize, rather, the Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation that already exists and, despite strains, is in use daily.

Mr. Arafat had to take some comfort from the secretary's statement that the US would judge for itself whether the Palestinian Authority was fulfilling its security obligations. According to some observers, the official Israeli list of people to arrest would reach beyond suspected terrorists to wipe out the whole Islamic infrastructure of the West Bank and Gaza - and the social services it supports.

Ms. Albright's message to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was equally pointed: that Jewish settlement building, demolition of Palestinian homes, and withholding of funds owed the Palestinian Authority work against peace, partnerships with the Arabs, and real security for Israel. Albright also let the prime minister know the US still backed the Oslo peace process, with its timetable for Israeli withdrawals from occupied territory.

In other stops in the region, Albright attempted to reconnect the Syrian-Israeli peace track, which is as important as ever to ruling out major war in the region. She impressed Egypt's Mubarak, Jordan's King Hussein, and Saudi Arabia's King Fahd with her candor. The outlook for Arab participation at November's Mideast economic summit is now somewhat brighter, though still uncertain.

The same, of course, could be said for all the diplomatic deadlocks given a nudge by the secretary of state. Netanyahu has already released a portion of the tax money owed the Palestinians and loosened the restrictions on Palestinian movement within the West Bank. Arafat, it is assumed, will continue arresting terrorist suspects. He will be closely watched for moves that might encourage the majority of Israelis that still want the peace process to succeed.

Everyone, in the final analysis, has a huge investment in seeing that process revive. Not least the US. Albright has said she wouldn't return to the region unless there is hope of real progress. The subtext to that, we assume, is continued US endeavor to nourish that hope.

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