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U.S.-brokered Mideast talks get under way in New York
Key meetings on Thursday were scheduled between U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross and two Palestinians, Saeb Erekat and Mohammad Dahlan, and between acting Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
On Friday, senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath will meet at the White House with national security adviser Sandy Berger, who said the administration wants to establish "a base line" to measure progress in peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians over the next few weeks.
"The hope is to restart the process," he said.
Ben-Ami said he could not rule out direct contacts in New York between the Israelis and Palestinians, but the focus for the moment was on the U.S. mediation.
Ben Ami has told CNN the purpose of the discussions is to consolidate the gains that were made at the Mideast peace summit in Camp David in July.
A senior U.S. official described these meetings as consultations, calling them "no big deal." He said "people shouldn't get excited" because "there's less going on than meets the eye."
Sovereignty still main obstacle
The main obstacle to an agreement has been the dispute over who should have sovereignty over various parts of Jerusalem's old city, site of places holy to Jews, Moslems and Christians.
But Shaath said the Palestinians wanted to broaden the discussion to include the other aspects of an agreement, which would have to cover Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements and the borders of a Palestinian state.
"To concentrate on one issue and to make everything else hostage to it, as has happened in the past two or three weeks on al-Haram al-Sharif and the holy places in Jerusalem, has made it impossible to move on anything else," he said.
Al-Haram al-Sharif, the Holy Sanctuary, is the Moslem term for what the Jews call the Temple Mount, the western wall of which is Judaism's most sacred site.
Alternatives 'on the table'
Shaath said Palestinian President Yasser Arafat has proposed that sovereignty over the Moslem holy sites be vested in the Jerusalem committee of the Islamic Conference Organization, with functional control in the hands of the government of a Palestinian state.
"It is still on the table and the Americans are interested, but we have not yet seen an Israeli readiness to accept it," the Palestinian negotiator added.
He did not mention alternative proposals that would give the U.N. Security Council a role in Jerusalem.
Shaath dismisses 'hyperbole'
Ben-Ami described the negotiations with the Palestinians as "incredibly difficult" and questioned whether Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was ready to make courageous decisions for peace.
Shaath dismissed the Israeli minister's jab with a wave of his hand, saying, "This is negotiating hyperbole."
If the talks are fruitful, Albright said they could move either to Washington or the Middle East, and the United States would bring the two sides together "if it makes sense."
"There is a great deal of very imaginative work going on, a lot of brain power," she added.
"Neither side can have 100 percent of what it wants. We can't come out of this where one side feels that it has won and the other lost," she said.
Albright: 'America will respond'
The talks were announced Wednesday, the deadline Israel and the Palestinians had set last year for a final settlement. While there is no agreement, the Palestinians' Central Council this week deferred for two months a decision on whether to declare statehood.
That gives Albright and other Clinton administration officials a little breathing room.
At the same time, U.S. officials have lowered their rhetoric and ceased warning that failure to come to terms by this week could lead to a violent upheaval in the region.
Where only a few weeks ago these officials were cautioning that a "window of opportunity" was closing, they are now dismissing September 13 as simply an artificial day on the calendar of peacemaking.
"As long as the parties remain serious in pursuing an agreement, America will respond to their requests for help in bridging and brokering the hardest issues," Albright said Wednesday.
Israel and Palestinians say coming weeks decisive
The Israeli Government's Official Web site, by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
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