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Thursday, September 2, 1999 Published at 07:22 GMT 08:22 UK

World: Americas

US keeps Mideast cards close to chest

The US wants a final agreement by the end of the year 2000

By Washington correspondent Rob Watson

There has been little fanfare in the United States in advance of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's five-day tour of the Middle East.

US officials have said they hope the trip will restart the stalled peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis and launch a new round of talks between Israel and Lebanon and Syria.

State Department officials have restricted themselves to the most official of officialese, with much mention of meetings and talks but not much in the way of substance.

[ image: Israelis are optimistic the new administration will restart talks]
Israelis are optimistic the new administration will restart talks
Asked to describe the focus of the trip, spokesman James Foley was not giving much away.

"The focus of her trip is to take stock of where the parties are, but also to look ahead," he said.

Mrs Albright will assess how the US can help the parties as they engage in final status negotiations over the next year and a half, so a final agreement can be reached by the end of the year 2000.

Israeli optimism

In Israel to observe the visit, the President of B'nai B'rith Richard D. Heideman, says there is a sense of optimism in the country.

[ image: Arabs view the trip with cynicism and indifference]
Arabs view the trip with cynicism and indifference
Israelis hope the trip might mark a transition from squabbles over implementing last year's Wye accords to making a final peace agreement with the Palestinians.

"The Barak government has focused very directly on the possibility of reaching a post-Wye agreement, and my observation is that the Israeli people are very positive about that," Mr Heideman said.

High theatre, low expectations

But pro-Arab groups and voices are telling a very different story.

They say many in the Middle East see such high profile visits as little more than theatrics and that expectations are low.

There is a "weariness and sense of dismay" in the Arab community, said James Zogby of the Arab American institute.

[ image: Arabs say its up to the US and Israel to implement previous agreements]
Arabs say its up to the US and Israel to implement previous agreements
"Agreements signed over the past six years have not been implemented. We're at the point now, where we have watered down and watered down and watered down again original agreements to the point where people have a sense of frustration," he added.

The question of whether the peace process would move forward was up to the Americans and Israelis, he said, adding that the Arab world was waiting to see what they do.

Arabs perceive the process with a mixture of cynicism and indifference, said Clovis Masked, the former Arab League Ambassador to the UN.

"The cynicism is that they know that this is, to a very large extent, levels of theatre," Mr Maksoud said.

The indifference comes from a perception that the peace process is an exercise in futility because the Palestinians believe they have no prospect in exercising "any kind of sovereign prerogatives," he added.

In search of a legacy

One factor affecting America's decision-making is President Clinton's well-known desire for Middle East peace before he leaves office next year.

[ image:  ]
He wants to leave more of a legacy than the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal and his impeachment.

According to former Reagan aide Geoffrey Kemp, Mr Clinton has not got much else to boast about when it comes to foreign policy.

"He certainly won't get a Nobel peace prize for Kosovo or Bosnia. Russia is a mess. The relationship with China is going to be a big political issue with Republicans," Mr Kemp said.

"The Middle East ... is one area where Clinton can legitimately make a claim for a very successful foreign policy," he added.

But, as Mr Kemp is very careful to add, that is only if the Palestinians and Israelis do indeed move to final status talks and if there is at least the beginnings of a peace with Syria.

That is, of course, a big if - and former Arab League Ambassador to the UN, Clovis Maksoud, warns that the President should not count on unquestioning Arab support in his bid for a place in the history books.

"The Arabs do not want to subordinate their legitimate rights to be a footnote in the legacy of President Clinton," Mr Maksoud said.

US officials are well aware of that and are never shy when it comes to stressing the difficult issues ahead, but they also say there is no harm in at least aiming for peace by the end of the year 2000.

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