Middle East breakthrough unlikely in London Albright pessimistic about prospects for resolving stalemate


ULAN BATOR, Mongolia -- With an important round of Middle East peace talks scheduled in London tomorrow, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright "has no reason to believe" that she will be able to bridge the gaps between Israelis and Palestinians, her spokesman said here yesterday.

Albright, who has been on a trip to Asia, spoke Friday night with Vice President Al Gore, who was in Israel for the country's 50th anniversary. And she has been in daily contact with the American special envoy, Dennis Ross, who has been speaking to both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

While Albright will try her best in London to overcome "the still significant gaps" between the parties, said her spokesman, James Rubin, "there are grave dangers if we do not put the process back on track."

His words were the most pessimistic so far in advance of the separate meetings Albright is to hold with Netanyahu and Arafat tomorrow, in Washington's latest effort to restart peace negotiations after 14 months of stalemate.

"We are concerned that if we don't get the peace process back on track that there will be greater disillusionment and it will be much harder to ever do so unless we move soon," Rubin said.

While Washington has been trying to play down the prospects for the London meeting, Rubin's words were clearly an effort to increase the pressure on both parties, but especially Netanyahu, to accept American compromise proposals.

The Americans, after months of talking, have refined a formula for a staged Israeli withdrawal from 13.1 percent of the West Bank over three months in return for specific steps by the Palestinians to increase their fight against terrorism in cooperation with Israel.

After three months, both sides are supposed to enter talks on a final settlement of the issues between them, including final borders and the status of Jerusalem.

But Netanyahu and some in his Cabinet are insisting on a smaller withdrawal, saying that Israel's security is at stake. These withdrawals are part of the Oslo accords that Israel and the Palestinians signed in 1993 and 1995 and that were reconfirmed in the Hebron accords of January 1997.

Some American officials were talking somewhat more optimistically last week, but Ross' visit to the region has evidently not produced the elements of a breakthrough, a sense apparently underlined by Gore's conversations with Netanyahu.

"Based on reports by Ross and the vice president, we're clearly not feeling any more optimistic," a senior American official said.

"The secretary still believes there are still significant gaps that need to be overcome and she will obviously seek to do so," Rubin said. "But this will be a difficult task. We are neither optimistic nor pessimistic, other than saying this process cannot go on indefinitely."

The Americans have threatened to go public with their proposals and an assessment of the remaining gaps, a move Netanyahu has campaigned to avoid. Recently, 81 American senators signed a letter urging President Clinton not to present publicly proposals that Netanyahu would feel compelled to reject.

American officials say that they do not want a public confrontation with Israel, but that Washington cannot continue its current role if further stagnation in the peace effort is the only result.

It is less clear what Washington will do if Netanyahu and Arafat continue to fail to agree, however. American officials acknowledge that Washington, for its own national interests, cannot simply walk away from efforts to reach a wider peace in the Middle East.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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