Deploying the weight of her office for the first time in the troubled Middle East, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has given strong assurances of support for Israel, and made clear that the peace process depends upon Palestinian control of the "terrorist war being waged against Israel."
Ms. Albright drew strong criticism from Palestinian officials for what they see as her charm offensive toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They charge that long-agreed-on principles of swapping land for peace, and any hint of tough talk for the Israeli leader, were lost in a larger flow of pro-Israel rhetoric.
The past American role of serving as a "honest broker" in the peace process, Palestinians say, has been jeopardized by Albright's emphasis on the "deep bonds of friendship and understanding that make the US-Israeli relationship unlike any other."
Secretary Albright spoke of the need to "restore the partnership and the reciprocity" between Israel and the Palestinians, to break a "crisis of confidence." But the security of Israel was the "center" of her agenda on the first leg of a week-long Mideast tour.
She said Israel, too, must keep to its side of the bargain in signing the 1993 Oslo peace accord. The interim agreement requires further Israeli withdrawals from the occupied West Bank.
Such steps, Albright said, should be made in concert with a controversial Netanyahu plan for moving quickly to "final status" talks on the most difficult issues. Making a veiled reference to continued Israeli building of Jewish housing in Arab East Jerusalem, she said that Israel "should refrain from actions that undermine confidence and trust."
After delivering a tough message to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat yesterday, Albright admitted, "We have a long way to go.... So far we have managed to get agreement on the fact that terrorists are terrible, but we have not yet been able to see what the best methods are to get the peace process back on track."
Said Mr. Arafat: "Be sure that we will continue to be committed to the peace process."
Earlier, Albright met with Leah Rabin, widow of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and laid a wreath at Mr. Rabin's grave. Mrs. Rabin warned Albright not to "wait and see until there is 100 percent success" on terrorism.
"I have doubt about how much terrorism can be uprooted," she said. "We were also terrorists once, and they didn't uproot us.... Despite all the efforts of all the British Army in the land, we went on with terrorism." She was referring to the British mandate, which ended in 1948, during which British troops were often attacked by Jewish and Arab terrorists.
Critics were quick to point out that Albright spent more time making tearful visits in Israel to bomb victims, families of soldiers missing in action in Lebanon, and the Holocaust memorial than she spent with Palestinian leaders.
"No people has suffered more from the ravages of terrorism, injustice, intolerance, than the people of Israel," she said. "And no country has demonstrated a stronger will than Israel to deny oppressors and murderers the victories they seek."
Albright paid tribute to 100 years of Zionism. "Israeli history is characterized by striving for peace, hope for a better future, courage, and leadership," she said. "Those traits have earned Israel the unbreakable and unending friendship of the people and government of the United States."
Palestinian Authority Education Minister Hanan Ashrawi said Albright took a "wholly one-sided approach" and that "at some point, the US has to decide whether it wants to serve only Israeli interests, or ... the interests of peace in the region.
To Palestinians, many of whom were forced from their homes during the 1948 war for Israel's independence, and the subsequent occupation of Arab territory in the 1967 Six-Day War, any talk of the "proud history" of the Jewish state and Israel's 50-year "hunger for justice, a commitment to human dignity, and desire for peace" - all Albright's words - turn the facts around.
Despite Albright's restatement of US policy that requires both sides to live up to their agreements - and emphatic statements from Israeli and Palestinian leaders that they dream of peace - the potent symbolism of the tour raised doubts among Palestinians.
Netanyahu, who aides say had braced for a scolding over Israel's tough punitive measures against the Palestinians after suicide-bomb attacks on July 30 and Sept. 4, and over Israeli building in Arab East Jerusalem last March that led to a breakdown of security cooperation, beamed.
"We were deeply moved today by your words," he said Wednesday. "I'm sure they touched the hearts of all Israelis ... and they showed real empathy with our history."
The Israeli press reported an "extremely upbeat mood" in Netanyahu's office. A "senior source" was quoted as saying that "none of the dire predictions of US pressure had come to pass and instead Netanyahu encountered 'more understanding than we have ever known.' "