WASHINGTON, Dec. 19 (JTA) — In an effort to stem the “recent drift” in the peace process, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said this week that he would dispatch his top Middle East negotiator to Israel. “The president and I have been concerned about the recent drift in the peace process,” Christopher said Thursday at his year-end press conference, the last one of his tenure. Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross will travel to Israel this weekend and return before Christmas to seek the elusive accord on an Israeli redeployment in Hebron, Christopher said. Days after President Clinton said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement policy was “absolutely” an obstacle to peace, officials in his administration have begun calling on Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat to do his part to conclude the Hebron negotiations. “It is time for the parties to come into agreement on Hebron,” Christopher said. “The Israelis have made some moves in connection with Hebron. We think it’s time for the Palestinians, for Chairman Arafat, to respond to those moves.” At the same time, Christopher reiterated his criticism of Israel’s settlement policy. “We feel that settlement activity does have the effect of causing problems for complicating the peace process,” he said. Christopher appealed for vigilance against terrorism during the stalemated talks. “I strongly urge President Arafat and all those who are involved to take every action that they can to ensure that there is no recurrence of violence, because violence can only aid the enemies of the peace process,” he said. In Jerusalem, Netanyahu dismissed American criticism of Israel’s settlement policy. Netanyahu said at a Cabinet meeting Thursday that his settlement plans were no different from what he told Clinton when he took office in June. A Cabinet statement announced that “the principle of the policy is to continue construction within the framework of the borders of existing settlements; private lands will not be expropriated for the construction of homes; decisions on new settlements will be made only by the full Cabinet.” Netanyahu went on to say that contrary to what critics claimed, this policy did not violate the Oslo accords. Netanyahu told his ministers that Israel’s problem lay in its public relations, and he called on Cabinet members to intensify efforts to explain government policy. In the Jordanian capital of Amman, Foreign Minister David Levy said international criticism of Israel’s settlement policy had blown the issue out of proportion. Speaking to reporters after meeting Thursday with King Hussein and Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul Karim al-Kabariti, Levy said, “The cry that has emanated regarding the question of settlements is purely an attempt to exaggerate this issue.” Jordanian Information Minister Marwan Muashar repeated at the news conference recent statements from his country’s leaders that settlements represented a direct threat to Jordanian security. The Israeli policy encourages the idea that Palestinians should move across the Jordan River into the Hashemite kingdom to make room for expanded West Bank settlements, he said. (JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)
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