US Mideast Peace Envoy arrives in region to lay groundwork for Albright visit

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The Independent Online

U.S. Mideast peace envoy Dennis Ross met with Palestinian officials Sunday to pave the way for a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is expected to try to break a stalemate in talks over a West Bank troop withdrawal.Ross met with Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo and was to meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank town of Ramallah later Sunday. No details of the meeting with Abed Rabbo were immediately available.

U.S. Mideast peace envoy Dennis Ross met with Palestinian officials Sunday to pave the way for a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is expected to try to break a stalemate in talks over a West Bank troop withdrawal.Ross met with Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo and was to meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank town of Ramallah later Sunday. No details of the meeting with Abed Rabbo were immediately available.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met without Ross at the Ilwaha resort in the Gaza Strip but failed to reach agreement on an overdue Israeli withdrawal from 5 percent of the West Bank.Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he gave the Israelis a document outlining the Palestinian position on another expected troop pullout, the third phase of redeployment under the Oslo peace accords. Israeli negotiator Oded Eran said he would review the plan.The talks were also to address a release of Palestinian prisoners by Israel as a goodwill gesture for the upcoming Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Erekat told The Associated Press that the Palestinians would use the high level American presence in the region to push for a halt to Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank. Albright is due to arrive Tuesday.

He told reporters later that the issue of tenders for construction of 500 homes in the settlements, announced Sunday by Israel's Housing Minister 'is very dangerous and harmful to the peace process.'The Palestinians hope to establish an independent state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and view expansion of the settlements as an attempt to thwart their efforts.

Peace Now, a dovish settlement watchdog group, said this latest round of tenders pushed the number of bids released under Prime Minister Ehud Barak's five-month tenure up to 3,196.

This number already exceeds the yearly average of bids released by Barak's hard-line predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, a statement from the Israeli organization said.

Officials in Barak's government have tried to distance themselves from such building plans, saying that they are all projects approved under previous governments.

Arafat told his Cabinet on Friday that he believed Israel was using the talks as a cover for an unprecedented expansion of the Jewish settlements.

Israeli Minister for Jerusalem Affairs, Haim Ramon, said Albright's visit was intended to advance talks on a final peace treaty, not intervene in disputes over so-called interim issues like the housing tenders or the withdrawal.

Barak's security advisor Danny Yatom said that Israel would not compromise on the 5 percent withdrawal from the West Bank, originally scheduled for Nov. 15, that has been held up over Palestinian demands to receive more densely populated areas.

'Ultimately, the scope of the withdrawal and the type of territory being given to the Palestinians will be determined by the Israelis,' Yatom told Israel Radio.

The only remaining densely populated area in the West Bank not under Palestinian control is near Jerusalem, a city both sides claim. Israel worries that handing the Palestinians Jerusalem suburbs would give them a foothold in the contested city.

Meanwhile Sunday, in the divided West Bank town of Hebron, Palestinians protested what they said was the army's confiscation of their land near the Jewish enclave of Tel Romeida for a road around the site.

The Israeli army spokesman denied any land was being confiscated or that any residents had to move, saying in a statement that the army was building a wall on public land to protect the enclave.

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