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Albright Decries Decision on New Settlements in Jerusalem

By Norman Kempster
Los Angeles Times

Gritting her teeth after the most stinging diplomatic rebuff she has endured as U.S. secretary of state, Madeleine Albright complained Thursday that an Israeli decision to expand a Jewish settlement in the West Bank is "not helpful" to the cause of Middle East peace.

Albright said the decision announced Wednesday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu '76 to build 300 more houses in a long-established settlement causes just the sort of distrust between Israelis and Palestinians that she had tried to overcome by calling recently for a "timeout" on provocative steps.

"I am calling on Prime Minister Netanyahu to honor that timeout,' " she told reporters. "And I am calling across the board, again, for a timeout' on actions that make it more difficult to have successful negotiations."

Although Albright sought to keep the new dispute from degenerating into name-calling, Netanyahu's decision clearly clouds his relationship with Albright and tarnishes the results of her Middle East trip earlier this month.

Netanyahu compounded the strain by failing to alert Albright to his plans, even though the two spoke by telephone shortly before the prime minister made his announcement.

"I do think it is regrettable that this action was taken and it was not discussed in our conversation," she said.

Asked if she considered Netanyahu's action a personal affront, Albright replied stiffly: "In high politics, one doesn't take things personally."

At the conclusion of her trip to the Middle East, Albright said she had achieved "small steps when big steps are required." Nevertheless, she said, it was a promising start.

But the most important of those small steps - a resumption of direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians scheduled for next week at the United Nations - will certainly be damaged by the Israeli action. State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk protested the housing decision to "the highest levels of the Israeli government" in Jerusalem.

U.S. peace envoy Dennis Ross raised the issue with visiting Israeli negotiators who were in Washington to prepare for next week's talks between Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazan. Albright plans to personally participate in the talks as mediator.

In his Wednesday announcement, Netanyahu said his government would go ahead with a long-planned addition of 300 houses to the town of Efrat, one of the Gush Etzion string of settlements between Bethlehem and Hebron.

Efrat has been a Jewish town for 30 years and is located in a part of the West Bank that Israeli governments, both Labor and Likud, have said will not be part of any sort of land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians. But even if the decision was not particularly sensitive geographically, it carried tremendous symbolic importance, especially for the Albright-Netanyahu relationship.

Levy, who along with Albright is attending the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, told reporters that the housing expansion is legal under the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords negotiated in Oslo, Norway, and signed on the White House lawn. "We find ourselves in a situation that, even if one sneezes and it's legal, there will be somebody who says it is provocative," he said through an interpreter.

But the State Department immediately rejected the suggestion that the issue turned on a legalistic interpretation of the Oslo agreement. "These are not issues that should be adjudicated by lawyers," Rubin said. "They should be adjudicated by political leaders seeking to create an environment for negotiations."

Earlier Thursday, Albright and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook sharply rebuffed entreaties by some Arab and African countries to ease demands that Libya turn over to Britain for trial two men accused of blowing up Pan American Airways Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The bombing killed 270 people in the plane and on the ground.

The exchange came during a special session of the U.N. Security Council on Africa. Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe and chairman of the Organization of African Unity, asked the United States and Britain to "seriously consider" Libya's offer to permit the two men to be tried by a Scottish judge in a third country. The Security Council has imposed tough economic sanctions on Libya for its refusal to turn over the men to be tried in a British court.