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The BBC's Yvette Austin
"A total freeze on construction is unlikely but concessions are needed from both sides"
 real 28k

The BBC's Hilary Anderson
"Madeleine Albright will have to get involved"
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Tuesday, 7 December, 1999, 19:39 GMT
Barak halts settlement expansion
Mr Barak announced a freeze to some construction plans Mr Barak announced a freeze to some construction plans


Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak says he is freezing plans to add 1,800 houses to Jewish settlements near Jerusalem after the Palestinians warned settlement expansion would wreck peace talks.

Mr Barak made his announcement as United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright flew in for talks amid the latest peacemaking crisis. She is due to have separate talks with Mr Barak and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, on Wednesday.

Middle East
Mr Barak said proceeding with new housing projects interfered with Israel's efforts to strike a final peace accord with the Palestinians.

Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo said on Monday that the peace talks would stop unless Israel ceased expanding settlements on occupied land.

Mr Barak said he was confident the crisis would pass in a matter of days. "I have no doubt the negotiations will continue," he said.

But our correspondent says Mr Barak's announcement is not the complete construction freeze the Palestinians are demanding.

Optimistic

Mrs Albright flew into Israel after talks with Syrian President Hafez Assad in Damascus which she said gave her new hope of breaking the deadlock in Israeli-Syrian talks.

Albright's talks with Assad focused on: ...
Israeli withdrawal from territory captured in the 1967 Middle East War
The "character" of peace with Israel
The timing of the peace
Security arrangement along the border
She said Mr Assad was "very serious'' about restarting peace negotiations, which broke off more than three years ago.

A statement issued by the president's spokesman stressed that Syria was ready to proceed to the next step.

"I leave here feeling much more hopeful than when I arrived earlier this afternoon. I believe that I am more optimistic," Mrs Albright said after meeting with Mr Assad.

But she refused to go into details. "Discussions about negotiations are very much like mushrooms," she said. "They do much better when they are not in the light.''

Golan Heights

Mr Assad has expressed willingness to resume negotiations since Mr Barak came to power in July.

But he insists talks should begin with the assumption Syria will recover the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau seized by Israel in 1967.

Madeleine Albright Mrs Albright was optimistic about restarting talks
The Syrian leadership maintains that the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin promised to relinquish Golan in exchange for peace with Syria.

But the Israelis say this was only a hypothetical offer. They want certain guarantees before consenting to leave the land and have not revealed how much they are willing to give back.

The Syrians are disappointed Washington has failed to publicly endorse their claim. Damascus says Mr Rabin's promise was made through American mediators.

Settlements

Mrs Albright is in the middle of a five-stop Middle East tour aimed at advancing the Arab-Israeli peace talks.

The two sides are due to reach a preliminary agreement covering all outstanding disputes in less than three months.

The Palestinians say all building work in settlements in occupied territory has to stop if the negotiating process is to carry on. There are close to 10,000 housing units currently under construction.

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See also:
07 Dec 99 |  Middle East
Palestinians demand freeze on new settlements
06 Dec 99 |  Middle East
Palestinians halt peace talks
20 Oct 98 |  Middle East
Special Report: Middle East deadlock
07 Dec 99 |  Middle East
Golan deadlock awaits Albright
08 Nov 99 |  Middle East
Major hurdles for Mid-East peace

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