Albright backs Israelis to the hilt on `terror'

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The Independent Online
Patrick Cockburn Jerusalem

Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, gave full backing yesterday to Israel's demand that Palestinians make an assault on "terror", but made no public reference to Israeli settlement expansion and land confiscations.

From the moment Mrs Albright arrived, on her first visit to Israel as Secretary of State, her focus was unrelenting. She said President Bill Clinton's message to Israel was that "we are with you in your insistence that the Palestinian Authority fulfil the responsibilities and obligations it has undertaken".

At a joint press conference in front of his office Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said that Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, must decide whether he wanted "peace with Hamas [the Islamic militant organisation] or peace with Israel". Earlier, Mrs Albright visited a hospital to meet victims of last week's suicide bomb attack, which has set the tone for her visit.

Speaking of the injured, Mrs Albright said: "You can see in their eyes that they are ready for a new life here." In the West Bank town of Nablus about 50 protesters handed out leaflets showing the Statue of Liberty with Mrs Albright's head and plunging a sword into the body of a bleeding man representing the Palestinian people.

In the days before Mrs Albright began her visit, Palestinian leaders tried to persuade the US that she should not concentrate solely on Israeli security, but also on Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, release of prisoners and safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank. Overall, the Palestinians are fearful that Mr Netanyahu is seeking to evade implementing the 1995 Interim Agreement under which Israel was to end its occupation of most of the West Bank.

Mrs Albright denied yesterday that she had used tougher words in private to Mr Netanyahu than she had in public. At a meeting earlier the Israeli President, Ezer Weizman, is said to have told her, in words likely to cause controversy in Israel, that she should "knock heads together", the heads in question being those of Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat.

The Secretary of State will see Mr Arafat today in Ramallah, the autonomous Palestinian enclave just to the north of Jerusalem, where she will presumably also repeat that he should destroy the "infrastructure" of Hamas.

Already one senior Palestinian official, Hanan Ashrawi, has criticised the way Mrs Albright began her one-week visit to the Middle East, saying she displayed "a wholeheartedly one-sided approach". At the same time the Palestinians are trying to draw the Americans into the negotiations, on both security and civilian issues, in order to dilute Israeli influence.

Mr Netanyahu is under limited pressure from the Israeli public to reach an agreement with Mr Arafat. The Palestinian leader may believe that the internment of hundreds of Hamas members is his only real card, and is not to be played until he is promised a settlement freeze.

While the diplomatic stalemate goes on, the balance on the ground in the West Bank between Israelis and Palestinians is changing. Sales of apartments in West Bank settlements rose by 56 per cent in the first seven months of the year, the Ministry of Construction and Housing said.