Denying pressure tactics but flashing impatience, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is holding potentially fateful talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a U.S. formula for a West Bank withdrawal.
"Act before it is too late," she admonished Tuesday, insisting the entire Middle East peace process is in jeopardy.The centerpiece of the U.S. package, a pullback of Israeli troops from 13 percent of the territory, has already been rejected by Netanyahu as perilous to Israel's security because some Jewish settlements would be left isolated. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has accepted the U.S. proposal.
In a meeting with Netanyahu on Wednesday, Albright hoped to turn the Israeli leader around by devising with him a withdrawal plan that would allay his concerns, possibly by delaying the transfer of some of the territory to the Palestinian Authority,
"The leaders of the region have reached a crossroads," she declared in a speech Tuesday. "Decide before the peace process collapses."
Netanyahu had planned his trip to Washington to make Israel's case to members of Congress and to the American public in a series of speeches. But Albright canceled a trip to Germany with President Clinton to try to overcome the prime minister's objections. She allotted only one day.
If she succeeds, the peace conference Clinton had hoped to launch in Washington on Monday would be rescheduled and Israel and the Palestinian Authority would tackle far more difficult issues.
These include Palestinian aspirations for a state with its capital in a portion of Jerusalem, borders and refugees.
"We have gone the extra mile," Albright said with a tinge of exasperation in her speech at the National Press Club. Answering questions after her speech, Albright said she would not approach Netanyahu on a "take-it-or-leave-it basis."
"We are going to work with the prime minister," she said, indicating there may be a way to tinker with terms of the pullback.
But Albright also declared: "We are not going to water down our ideas."
In Jerusalem, David Bar-Illan, a senior adviser to Netanyahu, told The Associated Press: "We welcome the secretary's assertion that the American ideas are not presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, but we can't treat ideas merely on whether or not the numbers seem balanced."
Albright said the Palestinians had made a concerted effort to counter terrorism, and "in the nature of partnership" Israel should be prepared to compromise.
She said she was hopeful Netanyahu would reverse himself and add the 13 percent of the West Bank to the 27 percent already under Palestinian control. "This is the only way" to end a 15-month impasse and launch talks on a permanent settlement, she said, trying to gain support for the Clinton administration in a tense showdown with Israel.
"In response primarily to Israeli requests, we allowed more time and then more time and then more time for our suggestions to be studied, considered and discussed," Albright said in signaling U.S. patience had run thin.
She then held separate, closed briefings for members of the House and Senate. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and several other leading Republicans have accused the administration of unfairly pressuring Israel.
Gingrich said later that Albright was "giving the Palestinians a false sense of how much they can get out of the Israelis."
"I think it's wrong for the American secretary of state to become the agent for the Palestinians," Gingrich said. "Our job should be to get the two of them (Netanyahu and Arafat) to a table where they find an agreement, not to have us pressuring the Israelis to make an agreement."