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, held out the possibility this week 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. On Wednesday, the last day of her Middle East trip, Albright flew to Cairo in an effort to restart another peace track, the now-suspended Israeli-Syrian negotiations.But after Albright met with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa in the Egyptian capital, U.S. officials downplayed expectations that Israeli-Syrian talks would resume soon.Sharaa told Albright that Syria "would very much like" to resume talks with Israel, according to one State Department official.
Just the same, the official said, "It is going to take some time before we get a resumption of talks.''Chalk this up as more bad news for Clinton, who would have liked to host an Israeli-Syrian signing ceremony as much as an Israeli-Palestinian accord.
When Albright persuaded Barak and Arafat to agree to send negotiators to Washington next week, it was as much to serve Clinton's political goals as their own. Nearly seven years ago, when Israel and the Palestinians launched the Oslo peace process, they agreed to defer the most difficult issues separating them - including the future of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees and final borders.As unpalatable as it may be - perhaps no less than it was seven years ago - they now have to deal with those issues.
Every day, there are reports that Israel has conceded something - or that the Palestinians are foregoing something - followed by swift condemnations by some aggrieved party and equally swift denials from one or both sides.
But there is another reason why this cannot continue much longer.In the absence of an agreement by September, Arafat will come under pressure, perhaps irresistible, from his constituency to declare a Palestinian state.
Should he do so, when the two sides have been unable to agree on what the precise borders of such a state should be, the two sides could find themselves confronting bigger problems than they have now.