Albright: 'Little Steps' Across Big Mideast Chasm

Stalled peace gets a boost as recalcitrant leaders make some modest concessions.

The aftershock of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's first trip to the Middle East is slowly rumbling across the region.

The initial tremor for Arabs at Secretary Albright's first words in Israel Sept. 10 - of unquestioned support for the Jewish state and battle cries against Palestinian "terrorism" - gave way to relief as she switched to tougher language against Israel.

Albright called for a "time out" on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's "provocative" policies of building Jewish settlements on occupied Arab land.

This carefully choreographed plan, called a "one-two punch" by one Western diplomat, brought praise from several Arab leaders, so the "little steps" Albright says she made in her efforts to resuscitate the failing peace process were steps forward, and not back.

Mutual trust between reluctant Mideast peace "partners" has hardly been restored, but modest results of this trip's up-and-down burst of activity on the Mideast seismograph are already being felt. Among Israeli hard-liners, an initial euphoria was soon replaced by growing anger.

Albright left the region Sept. 15 amid reports that Jewish settlers had taken over two houses in Arab East Jerusalem. The move, though in line with Israel's settlement policies, caused Mr. Netanyahu to say that the move was "not good for the state of Israel."

Also put back on the US peace agenda: Syria and Lebanon's joint peace track with Israel. Less than a year ago, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said that the possibility of a resumption of the Syrian track - broken off by Israel in February 1996 - was "not even on the horizon."

But during talks here with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, Albright discussed Syria's terms for restarting negotiations on Israel's return of the strategic Golan Heights, captured in 1967.

Despite a steady flow of reports coming from Israel that Syria is preparing a "military option" to start a sixth Arab-Israeli war, diplomatic sources here deny seeing any evidence.

And during an unscheduled stop in Beirut Sept. 15, Albright made clear that Lebanon will play a "pivotal role" in the Mideast peace formula. She stressed the need for Lebanon to be independent, despite the occupation of a nine-mile-wide southern zone by Israeli troops, and 30,000 Syrian troops in the country.

A spate of bloody incidents - including the loss of 12 elite Israeli naval marines during a botched raid north of the zone the night of Sept. 4 - has again brought to a head the debate in Israel over a withdrawal.

More than 100 Israeli soldiers have been killed in southern Lebanon this year alone.

But any deal on Lebanon is intricately tied to Syria, the main power broker in the country. Syria tacitly supports - as does Iran, more overtly - Hizbullah guerrillas fighting the Israeli occupation.

Among the apparent immediate results of Albright's visit, Netanyahu on Sept. 15 suggested that Israel might be flexible on talks on the future of the Golan Heights. Until now, Netanyahu had rejected any Israeli withdrawal, and encouraged Jewish settlers living there to build.

But Syria still demands a full withdrawal, and says it wants to return to the same point where talks were broken off. Syrian and Israeli chiefs of staff had met twice to hammer out security details.

Sources in Damascus note that Syria's requirement about the starting point for renewed talks may also be adjustable.

"The Syrians do perceive some evolution in Netanyahu's thinking, but the gaps are large," says a Western source in Damascus. "Syrians are very skeptical about Netanyahu's intentions, and remain to be convinced that he is a man of peace."

In the "progress" column of Albright's ledger are meetings to be held in Washington next week between delegations from Israel and Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. Albright will meet Israel's foreign minister and Mr. Arafat's deputy, and then both Syrian and Israeli foreign ministers.

Palestinians also have come up with a security plan for confronting Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, which claims responsibility for suicide bombings in Jerusalem on July 30 and Sept. 4. As a result, Israel has partially eased its closure of Palestinian-controlled territories.

Despite heavy leaning by Albright, some Gulf leaders reserved judgment on whether they would reverse decisions to boycott a US-backed economic conference slated for November in Qatar. Israel will attend, and Syria is leading the campaign to block Arab participation until there is progress on peace.

Also far from resolved: daily violence in southern Lebanon. Israel says it is afraid to pull its troops out, saying that Hizbullah will "follow" them into Israel.

"Syria has always made clear that, in the context of a full Israeli withdrawal, ways will be found to neutralize the Hizbullah military," says a Western source here.

"But they are pleased about a certain level of violence there. It is carefully managed, so as not to lead to dire consequences," he adds. "It's a way to remind Israel and the US that the peace process is not complete, and requires more effort."

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