With Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright en route to her latest mission in the Middle East today, peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians appeared to crumble.
The chief Palestinian negotiator, angry about accelerated construction plans at Jewish settlements in the disputed West Bank, said he would no longer discuss anything with Israel except the settlements, which the Palestinians and much of the international community consider illegal. His comments came just two months before a mid-February deadline set by the two sides to reach the outlines of a broad settlement to end a century of conflict.
The breakdown in negotiations came hours before Albright landed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on the first leg of a four-day visit to the region. En route to the Saudi capital tonight, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said the secretary was "troubled by the current climate" and called on both parties to avoid unilateral actions that could spoil the atmosphere further.
"We're not moving ahead at the pace that one would expect if we're going to get everything done," Rubin said. "Obviously there's an enormous amount of work to do in order to get a framework agreement achieved in roughly 2 1/2 months."
"We were not able to hold a meeting today to discuss the agreed agenda because of the issue of the settlements," Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo told reporters after meeting his Israeli counterpart Oded Eran. "We are serious and we want the process to continue, but it simply cannot continue with settlements."
Rubin reiterated the long-held U.S. view that Israeli settlement building is a "complicating factor" because "it prejudges the outcome of those negotiations."
On the other hand, he added, "We do not think the Palestinian side should impose preconditions on specific issues that would make it not possible to go forward with the permanent status talks."
Earlier in the day, U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, who spent 24 hours in Israel before Albright's scheduled arrival, failed to break an impasse between the two sides over a long-delayed Israeli handover of another 5 percent of the West Bank.
U.S. negotiators were disappointed but not entirely surprised by the latest turn of events. It is hardly uncommon, on the eve of a visit by a U.S. secretary of state, for one side or another to seek tactical advantage by manufacturing a crisis. State Department officials said privately that they expect the Palestinians to do everything they can to draw the United States more deeply into the negotiations as a way to compensate for their weak negotiating position relative to Israel.
Albright also faces deepening pessimism i0 n the region about the chances of reviving Israeli-Syrian negotiations in the short term, raising the possibility that her swing through the Middle East this week could produce no tangible progress.
According to new figures released this week by the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now, the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak has approved more new building in the settlements since it took power in July--about 3,200 units--than the previous, right-wing administration of Binyamin Netanyahu allowed in an average year.
Israel captured the West Bank in 1967.
Aides to Barak said the government's hands are tied by previous governments' decisions and insisted that a way would be found to move forward in talks with the Palestinians.
Barak himself indicated late tonight that no further building units would be approved while the two sides negotiated their framework agreement. He told a meeting of activists from his Labor Party that he "supposed" no further construction would be authorized, according to his spokeswoman, Merav Parsi-Tsadok.
Albright has tried to dampen expectations that her brief trip will lead to a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Nonetheless, it seems her visit will coincide with a particularly sour moment in peacemaking between the two sides.
One high-ranking Palestinian official said it was pointless to conduct peace talks with Israel while settlement building is intensifying and interim deals between the two sides remain unfulfilled, and he warned that Albright would get an earful when she arrived.
The Americans "are to be held responsible for the stalemate in these negotiations since they are the sponsor of the peace process," Tayeb Abdul Rahim, a senior aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said in a speech in the West Bank.
Albright leaves Tuesday morning for Damascus, where she is scheduled to meet with Syrian President Hafez Assad.
On Wednesday, Albright is scheduled to have breakfast with Barak and lunch with Israeli President Ezer Weizman, the head of state. She is then to meet with Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah late in the day, and possibly again with Barak that evening.
Staff writer John Lancaster in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.
CAPTION: A Palestinian works on the Jewish settlement of Kokhav Ya'akov in the West Bank. Peace talks broke down over Israeli construction at settlements.