It's hard to be optimistic about peace talks in which one of the leaders has to be held hostage. Madeleine Albright had been holed up with Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak for almost 12 hours last Wednesday in the U.S. ambassador's residence in Paris. But the Israeli Prime Minister still refused Arafat's demand for an international inquiry into the violent clashes that had so far left more than 60 Palestinians dead. By 10 p.m., Albright's aides broke the news to Arafat that the best he would probably get was a U.S.-led fact-finding commission.
"No!" Arafat thundered and stormed out of one of the residence's ornate conference rooms. Albright, in another room, was alerted that Arafat was bolting for his limousine. She dropped her papers and raced out, finding the Palestinian leader 20 paces down the hallway, headed for the front door. Running awkwardly in heels, she did her best to catch up, shouting at him to stop. But the old man didn't even look back. By the time Albright reached the doorway, Arafat was climbing into his limo. "Close the gates! Close the gates!" Albright yelled to the Marine Guards at the compound's entrance, then skipped down the entrance steps to the driveway. "This is a humiliation," Arafat seethed in the backseat of his car, now blocked from leaving. Albright caught up to the vehicle, and Arafat rolled down his window. "Come on, let's go back inside," she said soothingly. "Let's sit down and settle this."
Arafat finally agreed. Back in the conference room, he and Albright slumped into chairs. Barak and CIA Director George Tenet were there waiting. Tenet passed around spy-satellite photos from the areas with some of the worst fighting and showed how both sides could retreat from the flash points.
The four began making progress. By 11 p.m. Albright believed she had agreement from the two sides on steps they would take to halt the fighting and keep it from flaring up again. Arafat even softened his demand for an international probe. But outside, diplomacy had become a three-ring circus. President Hosni Mubarak had already booked Albright, Barak and Arafat for Egypt the next day so he could preside over the negotiations. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had flown to Paris, eager to jump in. And French President Jacques Chirac sat in the Elysee Palace waiting for his turn.
The Marines opened the gates so Arafat and Barak could visit Chirac. While they were gone, Albright's team typed up the steps the two men would take to defuse the crisis. When Barak and Arafat returned, Albright planned to show them the paper so they could begin wordsmithing. But Chirac tripped up the plan when he told Arafat he agreed that there should be an international inquiry. Emboldened, Arafat decided to hang with his original proposal. Barak returned to the American compound at midnight, but Arafat ordered his driver to take him to his hotel. He wasn't going to be trapped again.
While Albright pleaded with Arafat over the phone to return, Barak and his aides napped on couches. Believing that the negotiations would wrap up early and Barak could leave by the afternoon, they hadn't booked hotels. But by 2 a.m. Barak decided to fly back to Israel. Thursday evening, Albright's jet cruised back to Washington. Groggy from only an hour's sleep the night before, she had kept her morning appointment with Mubarak. (Arafat showed up as well.)