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Mideast envoy delays trip for a day


U.S. peace initiatives continue despite Levy resignation

January 4, 1998
Web posted at: 8:13 p.m. EST (0113 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Presidential envoy Dennis Ross will proceed with a visit to the Middle East despite the political upheaval in Israel. But he plans to delay his departure by one day, putting him in Jerusalem a day after a critical vote there on Israel's 1998 budget.

With the resignation on Sunday of Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Ross decided it would be better if he did not leave Washington until Monday night, State Department spokesman James Rubin told CNN.

"Secretary Albright had asked Ambassador Ross to travel to the region this week. Of course, she will be following the situation closely," Rubin said.

Ross had planned to leave Sunday night, and his mission remains primarily to prepare Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat for their coming visits to Washington for talks with U.S. President Bill Clinton on January 20 and January 22, respectively.

A Clinton spokesman, Joseph Lockhart, said the administration viewed Levy's announcement as "an internal Israeli matter" and declined comment.

Palestinian officials said they hoped Levy's resignation would not hamper peace moves but privately welcomed his decision as a potential catalyst for Netanyahu's downfall.


Levy has been the biggest cabinet supporter of U.S.-brokered peace moves, championing American calls for a "significant and credible" Israeli troop pullback from the West Bank later this year.

Clinton's meeting with Netanyahu will be their first since the Israeli prime minister complained that Clinton snubbed him on his last trip to the United States in November. Clinton denied any such snub.

Albright suggested the two leaders visit Washington to see Clinton after her four-month drive to restart negotiations between the two historic foes failed to make significant headway.

Albright first traveled to the Middle East as secretary of state in September, when she called for the Netanyahu government to take a "time-out" on settlement construction in disputed territory. So far Netanyahu has refused, countering that Arafat is not living up to pledges to cooperate fully with Israel on security issues.

Meanwhile, Albright has sought to lure Palestinians into so-called final status talks with Israel ahead of schedule by pushing Netanyahu to declare a significant return of West Bank territory to Palestinian control.

That redeployment of Israeli forces is well past due, according to the Oslo accords that set the two sides on a path of negotiating peace in 1993. Netanyahu has failed to publicly declare how much land Israel is prepared to return, and thus, the stalemate continues.

State Department Correspondent Steve Hurst and Reuters contributed to this report.

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