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Albright asks Jewish leaders for help in swaying Netanyahu

WASHINGTON, March 29 (JTA) — In an extraordinary move, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has asked American Jewish organizational leaders to help push the peace process forward. In a conference call she initiated last Friday with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Albright urged U.S. Jewish leaders to help her convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept an American proposal for an Israeli redeployment in the West Bank. The proposal, which has been widely reported but never made public by U.S. officials, reportedly calls for Israel to withdraw from an additional 13 percent of West Bank lands in exchange for specific Palestinian steps to live up to its security commitments. In a series of weekend meetings with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross made an inconclusive attempt to get the two sides to advance the deadlocked peace process. During the conference call, Albright told Jewish leaders that the peace process was in trouble and that the Clinton administration might cease its participation if no progress were made soon. The fact that Albright initiated the 30-minute call underscored the American belief that something needs to be done quickly to save the peace process, which has been stalemated for a year amid Israeli and Palestinian charges and countercharges. “We need your help in having the Israeli government understand that we believe what we are doing is to benefit Israel’s security,” Albright told the Jewish leaders. The Israeli Cabinet, which has stated it would not approve more than a 9 percent redeployment, recently rejected the American proposal. Netanyahu said last week he would put the focus on the quality of the redeployment, rather than the quantity, and offered the possibility of giving the Palestinian Authority control over contiguous areas of the West Bank. Albright told the Jewish leaders that the American proposal was “just a set of ideas,” not a formal plan or proposal, and said the United States would issue “no public threats” to force the two sides to sign on. In response to Netanyahu’s statements that Israel alone would determine its security needs when deciding on the scope of the redeployment, Albright assured the Jewish leaders, “We will not second-guess Israel’s security.” But, she added, the United States could not accept non-credible offers from either side. The State Department issued no transcript of the telephone call, during which Albright spoke for five minutes before fielding questions. State Department spokesman James Rubin said Sunday that Albright had wanted to express her worries about the peace process to the group. “Secretary Albright has been making clear, both privately and publicly, that the peace process is in trouble,” Rubin said. During the call, Albright also criticized British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s decision to visit Har Homa during his recent Middle East trip. Cook angered Israeli leaders when he met with a Palestinian official at Har Homa, the site of a proposed Jewish neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were suspended a year ago when groundbreaking began for the new neighborhood. Albright said during the conference call that American officials had attempted to discourage Cook from visiting Har Homa, which she described as a “lousy idea” and a “misstep.”

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