By Munir K. Nasser
Chief Correspondent, Washington, DC
The State Department denied on Friday press reports that the Washington peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have reached a “crisis atmosphere.”
“The Secretary [of State Madeleine Albright] is at Bolling [Air Force Base] right now and she is taking part in the negotiations,” a State Department official told Albawaba.com. He said US officials are still encouraged by the atmosphere, but denied that there is an atmosphere of crisis at the negotiations.
Albright was supposed to join the peace talks on Thursday night, but cancelled her participation due to the breakdown.
When asked if Albright was offering new proposals to help bridge the differences, the official said “she is going to take stock of where we are. We are working on closing the differences.”
The official said that the US team is still considering a possibility of another meeting for the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators with President Clinton at the White House, probably on Saturday or Sunday. “The Secretary is going to work with them today and we are looking at a meeting with the President may be on Saturday,” he said.
When asked whether National Security advisor Sandy Berger or Middle East envoy Dennis Ross are planning to go to the Middle East to prepare for a summit, he said there are no plans for travel. “We will look at those issues later. We are focused right now at talks at Bolling and we would look at issues like that once we are there.”
The State Department reaction followed a series of speculative press reports quoting Palestinian negotiators as saying the peace talks “took a sudden downturn” on Friday when “Israel had backtracked on Jerusalem proposals and the negotiations were enveloped in crisis.”
Press reports said as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright prepared to join the negotiations at Bolling Air Force Base in southeast Washington, a senior Palestinian negotiator said Israel had rolled back on previous offers and described the talks as being in a "crisis.” A source in the Palestinian delegation also said there was a shouting match between the sides Thursday and the Palestinian delegation walked out of the room at one point.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the Palestinian delegation, accused Israel of pulling back on an earlier offer on Jerusalem.
"They gave us positive indications on the issue of Jerusalem, but they went back on it," Abed Rabbo told The Associated Press. "On some of the ideas they had proposed concerning Jerusalem, the Israelis stepped back, concerning Haram. We are facing a crisis. We are not close on any of the issues," he said.
On Thursday, Abed Rabbo said the negotiations were making progress over the Jerusalem issue.
"Concerning sovereignty over Arab Jerusalem, including holy Islamic and Christian shrines, we are very close on this point," he said.
Sources close to the Palestinian delegation said the crisis started when Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami began talking about annexing ten percent of the West Bank, after he had already agreed to annex five percent. “A fist-fight almost broke out between the representatives of both delegations,” one source said.
Albright told the AP Thursday that "there has been some evolution by both" sides since the Camp David summit in July. Declining to provide details, Albright pointed to a pin she wore and said "sometimes discussions, like mushrooms, do better being out of the light. So I wore my mushroom pin today."
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)