- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 1999

60;JERUSALEM A bitter confrontation erupted yesterday between Israel and the Palestinians over Jewish settlements on the eve of Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright’s arrival, derailing month-old talks aimed at sealing a final peace between the sides.
The dispute appeared all but certain to embroil Mrs. Albright, who intends to use her visit to the region to reaffirm U.S. support for the peace process, but had hoped to avoid acting as a referee in the tangle of quarrels between Israel and the Palestinians.
Spotlighting one of the most intractable of those disagreements, the Palestinians announced yesterday that they would no longer participate in negotiations aimed at setting terms of their hoped-for statehood so-called final status talks unless Prime Minister Ehud Barak halts a burst of new construction of Jewish housing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“It is illogical to hold final status talks while at the same time Israel is continuing its settlement-building. This is unacceptable,” senior Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo told reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah after a three-hour session with his Israeli counterpart.
[Meanwhile, former South African President Nelson Mandela yesterday announced plans to travel to the United States today and brief President Clinton on his Middle East peace initiatives, Reuters news agency reported. However, an administration source said the White House knew of no plans for such a meeting.
[“Mandela is coming to the United States on a private visit. There are no plans for the president to meet him at this point. But note that the president enjoys meeting with Mandela and does so when opportunities arise,” an administration official told The Washington Times.]
The final status negotiations, launched with fanfare on Nov. 8, are meant to reach the broad outlines of an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty by mid-February. On the table are the most contentious issues dividing the two sides: the borders of a future Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements.
Mr. Abed Rabbo stopped short of suspending the talks outright, but said until Mr. Barak agreed to a freeze on settlement activity, settlements would be the only matter the Palestinians were willing to discuss. No date has been set for another session.
Mr. Barak’s administration said it could not legally halt settlement building that was set in motion by previous governments, but that any other new construction would be concentrated in settlement blocs that Israel plans to retain.
“We will find a way to see to it that the issue of the settlements will not become an obstacle to the continuation of the negotiations,” said Danny Yatom, the prime minister’s security adviser.
But even as they tried to ease Palestinian anger over the settlement issue, Barak associates criticized the timing of the demand for a building freeze.
“I am sorry that the Palestinians are always creating a crisis when Secretary Albright visits the area,” said Cabinet minister Haim Ramon, whose portfolio is Jerusalem affairs.
Palestinians have long sought greater U.S. involvement in the negotiating process, while Israel has generally resisted it. However, the Palestinians denied the confrontation was being staged to coincide with Mrs. Albright’s arrival, scheduled late today.
“Mrs. Albright has nothing to do with this,” Mr. Abed Rabbo said.
Speaking in Saudi Arabia, Albright spokesman James P. Rubin said yesterday that expanding settlements harmed the atmosphere for negotiations but added that the Palestinians should not “impose preconditions on specific issues.”
[“The secretary is concerned and somewhat troubled by the reports she has received over the last days about developments on the ground,” Agence France-Presse reported Mr. Rubin as saying.

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