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Albright Decries Plan for Jerusalem

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gearing up for a possible new confrontation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is warning American Jewish leaders that an Israeli plan to extend the Jerusalem city limits could deliver a fatal blow to the already stalled Middle East peace process, sources said Saturday.

In a telephone conference call with 12 Jewish leaders, Albright laid out her objections to the Jerusalem plan, apparently hoping either to enlist them on her side or at least muffle their protests if the issue produces a public showdown.

Albright spoke to the Jewish leaders Friday, shortly after completing a telephone call to Netanyahu in which, State Department officials said, she told the prime minister that his plan risked upsetting U.S. efforts to restart peace talks between Israel and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Although Jewish sources said Albright was low-key in her call to the leaders, her objective clearly was to head off the sort of criticism from politically potent Jewish groups that has blunted the Clinton administration’s previous efforts to push Netanyahu toward compromise with the Palestinians.

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In Israel, Netanyahu’s government sought to minimize the significance of the plan to move Jerusalem’s boundaries westward to include mostly Jewish neighborhoods that are now outside the city.

David Bar-Illan, the prime minister’s chief spokesman, said Saturday that the proposal was intended only to expand the city’s tax base.

But when Netanyahu announced the proposal Thursday, Palestinian leaders complained that it was intended to solidify the Jewish hold on the city, which contains Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy places and has a mixed population of Jews and Palestinians.

The Palestinians envision the historically Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as the capital of the state they hope to establish.

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The United States and most other countries insist that the future of Jerusalem must be determined by negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, along with other highly emotional issues like the status of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian statehood and the disposition of Palestinian refugees.

These so-called “final status” talks were supposed to have begun in 1996 but have not yet started.

Washington objects to unilateral steps by either the Israelis or the Palestinians to change the demographics of Jerusalem in advance of the negotiations.

Albright told the Jewish leaders that she had a “very positive” conversation with Netanyahu, who dismissed as “Palestinian propaganda” the assertions that the plan is intended to change the face of Jerusalem, said a Jewish source who was in on the telephone conversation.

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But the source said a representative of Americans for Peace Now, the U.S. affiliate of Israel’s largest peace group, told Albright that Israeli documents indicated that the government’s objective in expanding the city limits was clearly to preempt the negotiations.

“Albright replied that those documents exist and are certainly a problem,” the source said.

Albright added that she hopes the Israeli Cabinet will “clarify” the situation when it meets today in Jerusalem.

“Clearly the State Department is concerned about this,” the source said.

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Although some Israeli commentators have suggested that the plan is only a modest measure to reassure Netanyahu’s right-wing allies that he will be tough in talks with the Palestinians, both U.S. and Palestinian leaders viewed it as a potential deal wrecker.

“It is extremely hard to understand why Israel would even consider taking such a provocative step at this sensitive time in the negotiations,” State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said.

Unlike most previous Israeli governments, which usually commanded nearly unanimous support from American Jewish groups, Netanyahu’s government faces a split in this country’s Jewish community, with some groups extremely critical of what they consider an excessively hard-line stance.

Nevertheless, few American Jews want to see Jerusalem divided. This is probably why Albright thought it prudent to make her case in advance to the Jewish groups.

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