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Albright’s Mideast Trip Still On Despite Bombings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright vowed Thursday to go through with a visit to the Middle East next week--her first since taking office--despite more terrorist bombings in Jerusalem that both underlined the importance of her trip and made her task far more difficult.

“We cannot give in to terror, and it is with this in mind that I plan to travel to the Middle East as scheduled,” Albright said in Prague, interrupting a vacation in her native Czech Republic.

At his vacation spot on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, President Clinton said he hoped that the latest bombings would give “new urgency” to U.S. peacemaking efforts.

But the attack and its aftermath, which included a reimposition of the West Bank and Gaza Strip closure that Israel had begun to ease last week, limit the maneuvering room for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and make it far less likely that Albright can achieve any sort of progress in the stalled peace process, Middle East experts said.

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Unlike her predecessor, Warren Christopher, who traveled to the Middle East on average every 7 1/2 weeks, Albright said she would go to the region only when there is a realistic chance for success. A month ago, she lowered that standard a bit but said she still will insist on improvements in security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians.

Thursday’s bombings seemed to undercut all the conditions she had carefully established. But Clinton administration officials said it would have been awkward to pull back, because that is what the terrorists wanted. And when both Netanyahu and Arafat urged her to continue with her plans, it became impossible to cancel them.

But some Middle East experts said Albright undermined her own credibility by setting impossible conditions for her first official visit.

“Even before this bombing, she had made a tough situation even tougher by delaying the trip,” said Richard Haass, the chief Middle East expert of the National Security Council under President Bush. “That only built up expectations. Also we saw a deterioration of the situation on the ground. The Middle East in September is in considerably worse shape than the Middle East was in February.”

Nevertheless, the attack will not spell the end of the peace process or U.S. participation in it, policy analysts said: U.S. interests in the Middle East are just too important to allow the administration to turn its back on the region.

As a consequence of the bombings, Albright is expected to focus on the security situation in Israel.

Albright leaves Washington on Tuesday and will hold her first meetings in Israel the next day. She also plans to visit Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.


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