Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once again saw a temperature-taking trip to the Mideast turn into a diplomatic rescue mission as a new crisis threatened the ailing Israeli-Palestinian talks. But this time, the Clinton administration regarded the patient with a skeptical eye. Officials here said the new spat over Israel’s settlements policies was contrived by the Palestinians to draw Albright more directly into the negotiations. “Every time she goes to the region, something like this happens,” said a White House official. “The issue of settlements is a serious one, and we’ve expressed our concern, but there was a strong feeling here that this time it was being used as a pretext for drawing the secretary more directly into nitty-gritty negotiations.” Albright reported “good progress” during her stopover in Damascus in yet another attempt to restart Israeli-Syrian talks, stalled since 1996. And she used her visit to Saudi Arabia to press for greater regional cooperation in the fight against Iranian-backed terrorism. The Israeli-Palestinian crisis began last week when talks over the delayed 5 percent West Bank redeployment of Israeli forces agreed to in the September Sharm el-Sheikh agreement — held up because Palestinian officials rejected Israel’s maps of the pullback — were complicated by a new flare-up over settlements. Palestinians, supported by some Israeli peace groups, said Prime Minister Ehud Barak was issuing permits for new settlement housing at a faster pace than his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. That led to Monday’s decision by Palestinian negotiators to put the ongoing “permanent status” negotiations, which began on Nov. 8, on hold until Israel agreed to a complete freeze on settlements construction. Officials in Washington once again criticized Israel’s actions on settlements as a “complicating factor” in the talks, but signaled a striking lack of sympathy for the Palestinians. State Department spokesman James Rubin called Monday’s decision “disturbing,” and chastised the Palestinians for setting “preconditions” for continuing permanent status talks —which will take up settlements, among other issues. Administration insiders said the Palestinian freezing of the talks was seen as a ploy to draw Albright into the stalled negotiations over the West Bank redeployment — a ploy they said she would resist. On Tuesday, Barak said his government would not issue new housing tenders for settlement construction while negotiators continue to race toward their February deadline. But the move would not freeze construction for housing units already approved. “This decision is in accordance with the government guidelines and serves Israel’s objective of strengthening Israel’s negotiating position in order to protect its vital interests,” said a Foreign Ministry spokesman. Albright praised that gesture as “very important in terms of the Palestinian track.” The decision was less popular with settlers’ groups, which promptly branded the decision a cave-in to American pressure. On Wednesday, there were indications the partial settlements freeze could provoke the National Religious Party to abandon Barak’s ruling coalition. And Palestinian officials rejected Barak’s proposal as inadequate, demanding a complete halt to construction as a precondition for resumed permanent status talks. But State Department officials said they hoped Albright would convince Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat to accept the gesture when the two met on Wednesday. The next session for permanent-status negotiators was scheduled for Thursday; at press time, it was unclear whether the Palestinians would agree to talk about issues other than settlements. Albright repeated her call for both sides to refrain from actions that would “embarrass” each other as negotiators struggle to meet the February target date for a “framework” agreement on issues including Jerusalem, statehood, refugees, settlements and borders. State Department officials had worked hard to dampen expectations about any breakthroughs on the Syrian-Israeli front, where talks have been suspended since 1996. But after her three-hour talk with Syrian strongman Hafez Assad on Tuesday, Albright said that “I left Damascus more optimistic than when I arrived.” She said she and Assad had made “good progress” toward resuming the talks, which have been stalled over Syrian demands that Israel agree to a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights as a precondition for negotiations. News reports in the region indicated Assad may have offered clarifications of his conditions for resuming negotiations. Barak, appearing before reporters with Albright, said that “we have so many other things to do, rather than to be deployed along the border for another generation or two. It’s time to make decision. I feel the opportunity is also clear to President Assad.” Peace process supporters here said it was a good start, but warned against expectations of quick progress. “She found Assad functional, which in itself is a good cause for optimism,” said Judith Kipper, head of the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “He made it clear he’s willing to go to the Israelis. But you don’t go to Syria for breakthroughs, and she didn’t get any.” Kipper said the Israel-Syria talks will resume — “but what happens in the talks is very different story.” During a stop in Saudi Arabia, Albright discussed regional issues, including concerns about erosion of the economic boycott against Iraq and reports that Iran has increased its support for terrorist groups trying to disrupt the Mideast peace talks. After her sessions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Albright was scheduled for a stop in Egypt. Meanwhile, right-wing Jews vehemently protested Barak’s decision to allow a new entrance to the Al Aqusa mosque on the Temple Mount. Burning Palestinian flags, the protestors ascended the holy mosque to demonstrate against the new Muslim-built entrance, which some said damaged Jewish archaeological sites during its construction. Throngs of Ramadan worshipers are expected to visit the site when the Muslim holy month of daily fasting begins this week. The entrance was created to serve the anticipated crowds
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