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Albright To Mideast Muddle

A U.S. envoy on Monday failed to settle a dispute between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over a partial troop pullback in the West Bank, leaving it up to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to find a solution.

Albright, who is on a five-day swing through the Mideast, was to hold talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Ahead of her arrival, there were growing signs of a crisis, with the Palestinians hinting Monday at a de facto suspension of talks on a final peace treaty unless Israel declared it would stop Jewish settlement expansion.

The Palestinians have been pushing for a more intense U.S. role in the deadlocked negotiations, while Israel wants Washington to stick to a low-key role.

Early Monday, U.S. Mideast envoy Dennis Ross met with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators who have been trying to break an impasse over an Israeli troop withdrawal from 5 percent of the West Bank.

The pullback is the second of three stipulated in an interim peace accord signed in September. The Palestinians balked at the pullback offer, saying they wanted more densely populated areas; Israel insists it has the sole right to decide which land to hand over.

Â"We couldn't bridge the gaps and Mr. Ross is reviewing the issue with Mrs. Albright,Â" the Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said after the three-way meeting, which was also attended by his Israeli counterpart, Oded Eran.

A failure by U.S. mediators to resolve the relatively minor dispute over the troop withdrawal would not bode well for the negotiations on a permanent peace agreement in which much more complicated issues are being tackled.

The two sides face a self-imposed February deadline to reach basic agreement on the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the future of Jewish settlements and the final borders of the Palestinian entity, which Palestinians hope will be an independent Palestinian state.

In Monday's round of so-called final status talks, the two sides were to discuss the fate of Palestinian refugees. However, a Palestinian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Palestinians would not engage in the talks unless they received a clear pledge from Israel regarding settlements.

The official said the Palestinian measure stopped short of calling off the negotiations.

Despite the problems, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said after a meeting with Ross late Sunday that he believed the two sides could still make the deadline Â"if the leaders will know how to make tough and courageous decisions.Â"

By Laurie Copans
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