Albright plans Mideast trip to push final-status talks

JERUSALEM — Secretary of State Madeleine Albright plans to visit Israel and the Palestinian self-rule areas next week to push the final-status talks forward.

Her planned visit comes as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators continued their talks aimed at reaching a final peace agreement.

Word of the visit also came amid reports that former South African President Nelson Mandela is trying to arrange a summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian President Hafez Assad.

During the latest round of final-status talks, held Monday near Jerusalem, the Palestinian delegation presented their Israeli counterparts with a letter protesting continued Jewish settlement activity and stating that the negotiations would not be able to move forward if that activity does not stop.

The Israeli negotiators promised to pass the message on to Barak.

The two sides are working toward a February deadline for a framework agreement on such issues as final borders, Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem and Jewish settlements.

Even as Israel and the Palestinians continued to discuss these issues, they remain deadlocked in a dispute over the next Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

The withdrawal, which was slated to have been carried out Nov. 15, was held up after Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat rejected the redeployment maps.

Israeli officials maintain that they alone will determine which areas are transferred. The Palestinians are demanding a say as well.

On Sunday, Barak told his cabinet that the final-status talks have entered their most critical phase and that the next 10 to 12 weeks would determine what would be achieved.

A day later, he reiterated his stand on one of the final-status issues, declaring that no Palestinian refugees would be allowed to return to Israel under a final peace agreement.

He also said negotiations would determine how many refugees would be allowed to resettle in the Palestinian self-rule areas.

Barak's remarks appeared directed at recent statements by a Labor Party legislator to allow up to 100,000 Palestinians to return to Israel.

"I do not intend to deal with every statement by a member individually, but I reiterate, refugees will not return to Israel," Barak said Monday.

Meanwhile, Israel Radio reported that Mandela has been trying to get Barak and Assad to meet at a session hosted in Amman by Jordan's King Abdullah.

Mandela is refusing comment on the report, with a spokeswoman saying Monday, "This is quite a sensitive matter and he is not in a position to confirm or deny the new proposal. He wishes that these matters develop without publicity."

The comment came after Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin said he had met with the South African ambassador to Israel to discuss Mandela's plan.

While Mandela is keeping a low profile on the subject, Israel is sending mixed signals. Foreign Minister David Levy welcomed the initiative.

Barak said that while he would be happy to meet with the Syrian leader, he thought such a meeting should come as a U.S. initiative.

Israeli sources were quoted as saying it would have to be clear from the outset that a meeting does not imply that Israel agrees to Syria's long-standing demand for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights as a condition for resuming negotiations.

Israel suspended the talks in March 1996 after Assad failed to condemn a series of Hamas terror attacks against Israeli targets.