September 18, 1997
Madeleine Albright left behind a Middle East that's more fearful than when she arrived on Sept. 10 to salvage the peace process. In her first official visit, the secretary of state failed to restore even a modicum of trust between Israelis and Palestinians, or to coax the Syrians back to the negotiating table.
It is a measure of her failure that senior Israeli security officers admit privately that there is a high probability of more suicide bombings such as those which killed a total of 20 civilians in a Jerusalem shopping mall on Sept. 4 and in a market five weeks earlier.
"When Hamas threatens to carry out more attacks," one of them said, "we take it very seriously. They have the people; they have the capability."
Security men also complain that the arrival of three Jewish settler families in the Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of Ras el Amud, barely 48 hours after Albright flew out of Israel, will not encourage the Palestinian police to cooperate in the war against Islamic terror. This was precisely the kind of "unilateral act" Albright pressed Netanyahu to avoid -- acts, as she put it, "which Palestinians perceive as provocative."
The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, condemned the Ras el Amud initiative as a direct Israeli reply to the American call for a timeout. "The Israelis," he said, "won't stop settlement building, and they will continue their fait accompli policies on Jerusalem."
Even if Binyamin Netanyahu's government did not plan the occupation of two houses owned by the Miami-based bingo king, Irving Moscowitz, as a rude gesture to the secretary of state, it did nothing to stop it. The settlers had informed the police in advance of their intentions. Only after the event did the prime minister try to turn the clock back.
The same day, a planning appeal board reaffirmed Moscowitz's right to build on other land he bought legally in Ras el Amud, but Netanyahu announced that he would not let him go ahead. "We're not going to allow private individuals to make decisions affecting the whole country," said his spokesman, David Bar-Illan. The government, unlike the planning board, could take security or public order into account.
Moscowitz himself had told friends in Jerusalem that he would not go ahead "in the present circumstances" and build on his 3 1/2-acre plot. But, with or without his blessing, his tenants struck the match for him in this most incendiary of cities.
The anxiety can be measured in the hundreds of Jews who are buying their fruit and vegetables anywhere but the Mahane Yehuda market and drinking their coffee as far away as possible from the Ben-Yehuda mall. A Gallup Poll published in Ma'ariv on Sept. 12 found that 72 percent of Israelis worried that Netanyahu had no way to stop the bombers.
The most Albright achieved was to persuade Yasser Arafat to resume a measure of security cooperation, under American supervision, and to arrest about 150 Hamas activists. Israel responded by slightly easing the closure on travel between the Palestinian territories and Israel and by releasing another slice of tax revenues withheld from the Palestinian Authority after the Mahane Yehuda suicide bombing.
Israeli security professionals doubt, however, whether the Palestinian leader has given a "red light" to the terrorists. Nor are they convinced that the "revolving door" will stay closed for long on the detainees, who, in any case, are not the men who call the shots. Palestinian spokesmen complain that neither Albright nor Netanyahu gave Arafat enough incentive to risk a confrontation with his increasingly frustrated constituency.
The secretary of state is refusing to follow her predecessor, Warren Christopher, who shuttled around the Middle East 25 times and left empty-handed. "I will come back to the region," she said, "whenever the leaders have made the hard decisions and I can make a difference. But I am not going to come back here just to tread water."
If the situation continues to go downhill, she may be forced to return whether she likes it or not. And, this time, she would do well to take President Ezer Weizman's advice and bring a few sticks and carrots with her.