British Minister Visits Hebron, Urges Israeli-palestinian Accord

British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind this week urged Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to reach an agreement for the redeployment of Israeli troops in the West Bank town of Hebron.

Rifkind, who paid a one-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian self-rule areas Sunday, called on the two sides to negotiate “in an inspired way that recognizes the great prizes to be won.”

“I would not want to hide from you the grave concern felt by the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the international community at the way the peace process has faltered in recent months,” he said.

His visit came after Israeli and Palestinian negotiators failed during four weeks of intensive discussions to reach a Hebron accord.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that no target date had been set for concluding the Hebron agreement.

He was responding to reports quoting U.S. diplomatic sources that the two sides had set a target date of Nov. 12.

Rifkind’s trip to the Middle East came two weeks after French President Jacques Chirac visited the region, angering Israeli and American officials with his pro-Arab remarks and his calls for greater European involvement in the peace process.

Rifkind was careful not to criticize Chirac’s visit, but he said that British diplomats were “even-handed.”

Although he expressed his interest in helping the sides bridge their differences, the British foreign secretary said Europe should only have a mediating role in the process if it would prove productive.

Netanyahu and Foreign Minister David Levy asked Rifkind to convey to Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat the danger of delaying the negotiations.

“As far as we are concerned, the negotiations could have been concluded two weeks ago,” Netanyahu said at a news conference.

In between his talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Rifkind squeezed in a visit to Hebron to review the situation there.

After his visit there, Rifkind described Jewish settlements in the territories as “illegal” and said they should be dismantled.

Meanwhile, tensions remained high in Hebron, where Jewish settlers have threatened to resist an Israeli troop pullback.

A Palestinian house in Hebron caught fire Sunday, and residents of the house accused Jewish settlers from the nearby Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba of throwing a firebomb through one of the windows.

Police were investigating the incident.

During Rifkind’s visit, a stone was thrown at a vehicle transporting journalists, cracking the windshield. No one was injured.

Talks on Hebron between Israel and the Palestinians slowed last week after Arafat left for a weeklong European tour and U.S. Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross returned to Washington.

Ross was expected to return to the region later this week.

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