Albright pessimistic on eve of key Mideast talks

LONDON (AP) — A pessimistic Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders today for what are billed as make-or-break talks to try to revive the stalled Middle East peace process.
The London meetings “are decisive for the future of the peace process,” the senior Palestinian representative in Britain, Afif Safieh, said Sunday. The negotiations are teetering between “the desirable breakthrough and the possible breakdown.”
The United States has warned that it may abandon its mediation if the 14-month stalemate over Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank continues. And Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat reiterated that he will declare statehood in May 1999, regardless of whether there is a deal with Israel.
Albright has already won Palestinian approval for an American initiative that calls for Israel to hand over 13 percent of the West Bank. The phased Israeli withdrawal is to be linked to a Palestinian crackdown on Islamic militants.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to accept the proposal despite intensive U.S. diplomatic efforts, including a meeting Sunday with Vice President Al Gore.
Israel has said it will hand over 9 percent of the West Bank, and some reports have said Netanyahu is willing to offer up to 11 percent. But the Palestinians say 13 percent is their absolute minimum.
Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to meet Netanyahu and then Palestian leader Yasir Arafat today before they hold separate talks with Albright.
The London meeting will take place exactly one year before the May 4, 1999, deadline for the completion of Middle East peace negotiations set in the 1993 Oslo peace accords.
All sides know the peace process cannot drift indefinitely.
Arafat reiterated Sunday that next May he will announce an independent Palestinian state.
Netanyahu has hinted he would retaliate by annexing some of the West Bank. And with both sides freed of restraints imposed by the peace accords, many fear renewed violence.