Albright arrives to try to save Mid-East talks

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MADELEINE ALBRIGHT arrives in Israel today to help to rescue the tottering peace talks, which the Palestinians threatened to scupper yesterday unless the Israelis stopped building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

The US Secretary of State's mission is to nudge the peace talks forward, but yesterday's events mean that her task will now be to steer them back on track or even to prevent them from disintegrating. The Palestinian chief negotiator, Yasser Abed Rabbo, announced yesterday that it was "illogical and unacceptable" to carry on negotiating "while Israel is continuing its policies of land confiscation and settlement building". He said he would not discuss any of the agenda - fundamental issues such as the right of return of millions of refugees and control over Jerusalem - until the building stopped. A senior aide to the Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, said later that Israel would work to ensure the talks were not wrecked by the settlements dispute - without saying how.

Peace Now, a watchdog body that monitors settlement building, says Israel has approved 3,196 homes in the occupied territories during Mr Barak's five-month premiership, nearly 200 more than the annual average under Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel's policy of strengthening its grip on strategic parts of the West Bank and Gaza by creating "facts on the ground" has become the biggest source of discord with the Palestinians, who object to the steady shrinkage of the land on which they hope to build their state.