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'Moment of truth' approaching for Israeli-Palestinian peace, Albright says
JERUSALEM -- "The moment of truth is fast approaching" for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said on Monday during a two-day visit to Israel.
She said she hopes that during her visit a basis can be laid for final status talks in the United States between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Albright arrived in Israel on Monday from Russia, where she had been accompanying U.S. President Bill Clinton. Speaking at a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, she said, "It is a historic time, and decisions must be made."
Albright praised Barak for fulfilling what she called his "bold commitment" by withdrawing Israeli troops from Lebanon. She said, "At the same time, the moment of truth is fast approaching in the pursuit of the Israeli-Palestinian peace."
Albright added, "We are concentrating now on trying to realize this historic opportunity to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on permanent status and in so doing to address the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict."
U.S. officials have said Albright hopes a "basis can be laid" for three-party talks in Washington by the end of the month.
Officials traveling with Albright said she was intent on determining how far Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat can and will go to reach an agreement.
Issues 'extraordinarily complex'
"As I have said, as President Clinton has said, he is prepared to have such a summit, but we have to make sure that the conditions are right," Albright said, calling the issues at stake "extraordinarily complex."
Albright said that if both sides realize that neither is going to get 100 percent of what it wants, take into account each other's demands, and realize that time will not improve the chances for negotiations, then a deal is possible.
Barak agreed, saying, "We have to act in such a way that everyone comes out a winner."
Clinton is expected to host Arafat at the White House next week.
The right-wing opposition had charged that he was preparing to make wholesale concessions on Jewish settlements.
A senior aide to the prime minister confirmed reports that Barak is willing to dismantle settlements in the West Bank and Gaza where some 60,000 Jewish settlers live.
Asked about a reported deal he has proposed on territory, Barak said at the news conference that it was premature to say publicly what shape a final status agreement might take. He said both sides must reach a "point of equilibrium to provide us with a stable peace for generations to come."
Barak's meeting with Albright was postponed for an hour because the prime minister had to cast his vote in the Israeli parliament, where his government survived a no-confidence vote 38 to 33 on Monday.
The next challenge to Barak's ruling coalition comes on Wednesday, when the government faces a motion to dissolve parliament.
The ultra-Orthodox Shas party, part of Barak's ruling coalition -- but in a dispute over money with the government -- has threatened to support the motion.
Two sides trade barbs
As Albright arrived in Israel, the Israelis and Palestinians publicly traded barbs; both blaming the other for the slow pace of the talks.
To the Palestinians, Israel was refusing to budge on key demands: The status of Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as their capital; borders; and the future of Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements in territory Palestinians will eventually control.
"What they are doing in the negotiations and in the preparations for negotiations is to define the limitations on us," said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, "whether you call us self-governing or you call us a state."
The Israelis said the Palestinians put too much emphasis on single issues.
"It will be totally wrong if the Palestinians stick to one ingredient of the package," said top Israeli negotiator Shlomo Ben-ami. "They have fascinating components in this package they should look at."
Barak and Arafat also joined the fray, staking out positions ahead of Albright's visit.
Barak characterized talks with the Palestinians as "still in the initial phase" and said because of that, he had told his negotiators "not to hold discussions at this point on Jerusalem," which Israel says never will be divided.
Arafat said Jerusalem was an issue that could not be so easily avoided.
"Whether people like it or not, Jerusalem is the single most important element in these negotiations and of the outcome," he said. "And if people don't like it, they can drink from the Dead Sea. Jerusalem will be the capital of a Palestinian state."
Barak said at his news conference with Albright that two of the principal issues for Israelis are security and a settlement presence along the Jordan River valley.
Barak said that before the Americans will call any summit they must reach the point where they feel a settlement is possible.
'We need ...a summit like Camp David'
"We need to go to a summit like Camp David in which the sides will have to make tough, courageous decisions," said Israeli Cabinet minister Haim Ramon.
The gaps between the two sides, Ramon said, "are significant," and Barak and Arafat need to make "the toughest decisions they ever had to make."
Then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin joined then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter at the Camp David presidential retreat in 1978, leading to a peace accord signed the following year, Israel's first with an Arab state.
After spending two days in Israel, Albright will go to Cairo, Egypt, where she said she hopes to speak with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa about Israeli-Syrian peace talks.
"We are concentrating on the Palestinian track ... but the door is open (to Syria)," Albright said at the news conference.
Israel's talks with Syria stalled in January over the issue of land along the Sea of Galilee that Syria demands along with the return of the Golan Heights captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
TIME.com: Why Clinton may yet broker Palestinian peace
U.S. State Department
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