The good news is that Barak wants to negotiate by mid-February the outlines of a settlement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and begin talks with Syrian president Hafez Assad on returning the Golan Heights. Arafat and Assad, both ailing, realize this is probably their best and last chance to reach agreements. But Arafat and Barak are still haggling over a small parcel of Israeli-occupied territory. Albright wants to stay out of petty real estate disputes and keep Barak and Arafat focused on resolving bigger questions. But the men still distrust one another so much that it's hard to see how they'll reach a final accord. "We're still in an environment where problems are a certainty," says a senior U.S. official.
Madeleine Albright is finding Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak easier to deal with than his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who always had to be dragged into peace talks. Even so, Albright, headed for the Middle East again this week, is faced with the task of trying to untangle more of the same old squabbles.