Albright Calls Settlements "Legal"
By Carol Giacomo
WASHINGTON (Reuter 01-OCT-1997) - Secretary of State Madeleine Albright [Jewish] sowed some confusion Wednesday in the complicated and crisis-prone search for Middle East peace by describing Israeli settlements as legal.
But aides later said her comment was not intended to reverse a long-standing U.S. policy of ambiguity on the question under international law.
Asked about Jewish settlements activity in a television interview, Albright said: ``It's legal.''
But her spokesman James Rubin [Jewish], later told Reuters Albright was not signaling a change in U.S. policy, which for many years has refrained from making a sweeping judgment about the legality of settlements under international law.
Her answer, on NBC Television, was ``in the context of a discussion of what (the 1993) Oslo (peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians) does and does not permit, not what the American position is on the legality (under international law) of settlements,'' he said.
``All she meant by that was that as a technical matter, Oslo does not prohibit the settlements ... We're talking here about housing in (the West Bank town of) Efrat, we're not talking about new settlements,'' he said.
``Our position is clear: Settlement activity is a complicating factor and in several instances we have made clear that it's unhelpful to creating an environment for peace talks,'' he added.
On Efrat, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he would build 300 housing units, Albright reiterated in the interview that with the ``crisis of confidence'' between Israelis and Palestinians ``it's very important not to take actions that are viewed by the other side as creating more difficulties.''
Israel has argued that there is a natural growth in the population which makes settlement expansion justifiable. But State Department deputy spokesman James Foley told a news briefing: ``We've never accepted that proposition.''
Few Mideast issues are as explosive as Jewish plans for expansion into West Bank areas which were occupied by Israel since the 1967 MIddle East War and are home to more than on emillion Palestinians.
Peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have been deadlocked for six month over this issue as well as Islamic militants'
But the two sides, after meeting Albright in New York Monday, finally agreed to resume talks next week.
Still, Albright's remarks elicited a sharp response from the Palestinians top negotiator, Saeb Erekat.
``Settlements are illegal. It's not a question of building houses or provocative actions,'' he told Reuters.
``Albright, who served at the United Nations, knows that settlements are illegal according to the PLO-Israel agreements, the fourth Geneva Convention and all international laws at times of war,'' he said.
``She knows that the West Bank including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip came under Israeli occupation as a result of war. Aggression should not be rewarded and anyone who says settlements are legal is rewarding aggression,'' he added.
Jordan's Crown Prince Hassan, in Washington for talks at the White House, declined to comment on Albright's remarks per se but told reporters: ``Our position is clear. Settlements are illegal.''
Albright, on her first Middle East peace mission last month, called for a ``time-out'' to Jewish settlements.
She repeated that call last week, even as Netanyahu defied her by announcing plans for new units in Efrat.
Although Israelis and Palestinians agreed in New York Monday to discuss a ``time-out'' as part of a decision to resume deadlocked peace talks, Netanyahu said in Jerusalem Tuesday he would still go on expanding Jewish settlements.
The United States, in response, sought to maintain bargaining room in revived Middle East peace talks, saying its call for a ``time-out'' or halt in Israeli-Palestinian provocations was open to negotiations.