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Top officials meet amid talk of Mideast summit
Clinton calls Arafat
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Top Israeli and Palestinian officials met for three hours Saturday night after earlier talk of a new Mideast summit that could take place as early as next week.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and Gilead Sher, senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, met with top Palestinian negotiators Saeb Erakat and Col. Mohammed Dahlan, Ben-Ami's office told CNN.
Israeli radio reported the discussions took place at an undisclosed site and ended about 11 p.m. (2100 GMT) Saturday night. Further details were not immediately available.
The officials met for the second time in a week.
The first meeting was Thursday; Erakat told CNN afterward that discussions centered on preparations for a new Mideast summit that could take place next week. Sher said, "There is certainly some ground for optimism."
On Saturday, U.S. President Bill Clinton called Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to express concern about the ongoing violence in the Middle East. At least 350 people, most of them Palestinians, have died in the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian violence that erupted September 28.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman P. J. Crowley said the Clinton and Arafat discussed ways of restarting peace negotiations.
"President Arafat informed President Clinton that the Palestinians are determined to achieve a final agreement, and they are ready for that," senior Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rudieneh told CNN.
"It could be a new attempt, and it could be the last attempt as well," he said.
The previous summit at Camp David, Maryland, ended in July when Arafat and Barak failed to resolve key issues despite U.S. mediation.
"If there are negotiations going on between Palestinians and Israelis, it would come in the form of a continuation of the Camp David summit, meaning bringing (together) President Arafat, Mr. Barak and President Clinton," Erakat said.
'Death to Israel'
Earlier Saturday, 22-year-old Noor Abu Safi was one of six Palestinians buried in Gaza, after his body was carried through Gaza's streets by thousands of Palestinians who chanted "Death to Israel' and "Long live the gun."
The six were killed Friday in a series of clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinians. Safi's death came hours after Arafat and Ben-Ami met Thursday in Gaza to discuss the stalled peace process.
Israeli officials said Safi was shot and killed as he tried to stab an Israeli soldier at the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel. They said a bomb had been found on his body. The Palestinians did not comment on the incident.
Meanwhile, Palestinians remain confined to their homes in Israeli-controlled Hebron, where Israeli troops have been clashing with Palestinian protesters. The Tomb of Abraham, a sacred Muslim and Jewish site, is included in the 20 percent of Hebron controlled by Israel.
Israeli officials told CNN they imposed the curfew to protect civilians from the fighting and to prevent friction between Israelis and Palestinians.
Peace could help Barak
The latest high-level talks come amid Israel's prime ministerial election. Barak resigned earlier this month forcing the special election, saying he wanted a new mandate to negotiate peace with the Palestinians.
The election is expected to be held February 6.
A quick peace agreement could benefit Barak. Opinion polls have him trailing two likely challengers -- Likud party chairman Ariel Sharon and former prime minister and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu lost to Barak 18 months ago.
The Israelis have said they would not negotiate until the Palestinians curb the violence. But the Palestinians say the Israelis are perpetuating the conflict.
While Palestinian and Israeli officials welcomed the appointment Saturday of retired Gen. Colin Powell as U.S. Secretary of State, both Sher and Erakat said they would prefer to finalize a peace deal with Clinton.
Clinton leaves the White House on January 20, the day Republican President-elect George W. Bush is inaugurated. The change in administrations would mean the parties would need to take time to study the "details of the peace process which are well-known to the current administration," Sher said.
Erakat said he was certain a Bush administration would pursue a Mideast peace "with vigor," but added Clinton had been involved in the process for eight years.
"I must believe that over the next four to five weeks, we must exert maximum effort to ensure the participation of President Clinton," he said.
Rudieneh and Israeli Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh welcomed Powell's appointment. Rudieneh said the Palestinians were ready to cooperate with Powell, while Sneh said the former general understood the threat rogue nations posed to the Mideast.
Powell, a former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Mideast would be one of his priorities.
"We must always be sure that Israel lives in freedom and security and peace," Powell said after his appointment.
"But at the same time, we have to do everything we can to deal with the aspirations of the Palestinians and the other nations in the region who have an interest in this. I think America will continue to be a friend to all sides," Powell said.
CNN Producer Lynn Felton and CNN Correspondents Jerrold Kessel and Matthew Chance contributed to this report.
U.S. officials make new push for Mideast peace talks
U.S. State Department
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