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Clinton, Mideast negotiators meet at White House
Peres poised to enter election fray
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton met Wednesday afternoon with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, intent on gauging whether a solution is possible to the violence in the Mideast.
Clinton met in the White House with Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat as the clock continued to wind down on his presidency -- and his opportunity to curb the recent spate of violence and broker a peace agreement.
"The reflections of the president were very helpful," Ben-Ami told reporters. "We are going to get back now to the negotiating table. I trust that this spirit will continue to prevail."
Erakat would not say whether he felt both sides were making progress in the talks. "I should not raise expectations. We have difficulties, but also we have determination to continue doing whatever it takes," he said outside the White House.
"The president met with the negotiating teams for the Israelis and the Palestinians for about 45 minutes in the Cabinet room," National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a news briefing after the meeting ended Wednesday.
"The president outlined for the negotiators how he thought they should proceed for this week," Crowley said. "We're prepared to help them, but it's their timetable, it's their peace process."
He said negotiations will continue through the week, with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright meeting the negotiators on Thursday.
Clinton leaves office in five weeks, and will be replaced by Texas Gov. George W. Bush, son of former President George Bush.
The president is not expected to take an active role in the negotiations, however. White House Press Secretary Jake Siewart said the administration is leaving the curbing of violence and the restart of talks up to the timetable of the two sides.
"It is up to them to make the hard decisions involved in decreasing the violence," Siewart said.
Low expectations from both sides
Bilateral meetings between the Israelis and Palestinians, at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, are expected to end by Thursday night, when the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins.
But neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis were optimistic that the talks could end the violence and set the two sides back on track to peace.
Israeli negotiator Gilead Sher said that despite the low expectations, it is necessary to keep trying.
"We don't have very high expectations but we do think that if we have a chance, we have to try and exploit it now," he said.
Peres wants to run
Meanwhile, in Israel, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres formally requested the backing of the left wing Meretz party so that he can run for prime minister as a "peace candidate."
However, the 77-year-old Nobel laureate cannot enter the race without the signed endorsement of all 10 of the party's members who now hold seats in Parliament. He will find out Thursday whether he has that support.
Politicians in the Labor Party, whose candidate will be current Prime Minister Ehud Barak, said a campaign by Peres -- a Labor Party leader himself -- could split the vote on the left as Barak battles Likud chief Ariel Sharon to lead the Israeli government.
Aides to Meretz Party chief Yossi Sarid said Peres told Sarid he will run if he gets that backing, though he also has pledged to drop out of the race if Barak agrees to a peace settlement with the Palestinians before Clinton leaves office.
Israelis dispute Netzarim incident
In Gaza, more violence was reported by the Palestinian Red Crescent. The agency said two teen-agers -- a 13-year-old and a 14-year-old -- were killed during an exchange of gunfire in Rafah in southern Gaza. They said another Palestinian was left brain dead.
Palestinians said Israelis fired at an emergency vehicle at Netzarim. The IDF said it was not involved in any shooting there. "There is no initiated action there," said a spokesman.
In a separate incident in northern Gaza, the Red Crescent said one Palestinian was killed and another was left brain dead when gunfire broke out near the Rafah refugee camp.
IDF: Two soldiers wounded
The Red Crescent said another 40 people were injured -- four critically -- at Rafah. Palestinian witnesses say the gunfire began after the Israeli military began to build a new military post near the Rafah refugee camp.
The Israel Defense Forces denied there was any such construction. The IDF said it opened fire after an already existing military post was fired upon.
The IDF said two Israeli soldiers were "wounded lightly by fragments as a result of shots fired at them while they were performing engineering maintenance work."
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat charged that the Israelis are short-circuiting the talks in Washington. "These aggressive actions undermine the peace process," he told reporters.
The death toll in Palestinian-Israeli fighting since September 28 is 363 -- 312 Palestinians according to the Palestinian Red Crescent; 38 Israeli Jews, and 13 Israeli Arabs, Israeli officials have said.
Israeli, Palestinian negotiators begin peace talks
Knesset, The Israeli Parliament
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