Albright's challenge

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 September, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 September, 1997, 12:00am

Nothing is likely to test Madeleine Albright's diplomatic skills as severely as her mission to the Middle East. It may be a little more difficult for the US Secretary of State to convince the Palestinians of her detachment following the publicity attached to the discovery of her Jewish roots, but it is vital that America has the trust of both sides as an honest broker at a time of such tension.

The Palestinians may take some persuading, particularly as Ms Albright's speeches underlined US support for Israel's line, and give solid backing to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence that security takes precedence over peace negotiations. But her remarks also contained an oblique reference to the concessions Israel has to make if the failing peace process is to be revived. These include the need for troop withdrawals from the West Bank, and an immediate halt to the housing developments in the Arab quarter of East Jerusalem.

Such moves are just as essential for progress as it is for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to round up the terrorists operating within his borders. That he must do in no uncertain fashion before he can convince the international community and the Israelis that his own commitment to peace is wholehearted.

Mr Arafat did immense damage to his credibility by embracing Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders last month. He has to show that extremists will be given no aid and comfort in Palestine. Equally, the US must recognise the justice of his case when he protests that groups responsible for the recent suicide bombings operate from Lebanon and Syria, beyond his control.

Remarks by Israeli President Ezer Weizman, and by the widow of assassinated leader Yitzhak Rabin, may enable Ms Albright to take a firmer middle line. Both stress the danger of pressing Mr Arafat too far. This is a message she echoed when saying that the fight against terrorism cannot succeed unless Israel pays tax revenues it owes the Palestinian Authority, and allows Mr Arafat some political space.

But peace in the region depends just as heavily on Syria and Lebanon. If Ms Albright can bring them to the negotiating table, peace truly may have a chance.