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Mideast negotiators 'reducing the differences'
Suicide bomber wounds 3 Israeli soldiers
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators in Washington separately held two hours of "serious discussions" Friday with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, administration officials said.
The negotiators will likely meet with U.S. President Bill Clinton on Saturday, White House spokesman Jake Siewert told CNN.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami was to receive Albright and the president's special Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, for dinner and, possibly, "informal" talks on Friday night, an Israeli official said.
Before the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath at sundown Friday, the Israeli delegation left Bolling Air Force Base for a Washington hotel so that Ben Ami can attend a meeting at the White House at 9 a.m. Saturday, Israeli officials said.
White House spokesman Jake Siewert has confirmed that a meeting between Clinton and the negotiators is "likely" on Saturday.
In the Middle East, a Palestinian set off a bomb Friday in a West Bank roadside cafe, killing himself and wounding three Israeli soldiers, two of them seriously.
In addition to the suicide bomber, three Palestinians died Friday in separate incidents of violence in the West Bank and Gaza, bringing the death toll in the three-month-old open conflict to more than 370, as reported from figures supplied by both sides.
The high-level peace talks in Washington are in their fourth day. Among the issues at the heart of these negotiations: the borders of a Palestinian state, the future of Jerusalem, the return of refugees and Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
"These are intense negotiations that are also covering everything," one senior administration official familiar with the talks at Bolling Air Force Base told CNN. "Both sides are exploring everything. They are trying out lots of different ideas."
The Clinton administration has striven for eight years to nail down a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. As Clinton enters the waning days of his presidency, the drive to find agreement is high.
The administration official described the talks as informal. U.S. mediators "pop over and sit with one guy" and sometimes suggest to Israeli and Palestinian negotiations to go talk with one another, he said.
Officials say Albright had "serious discussions" with the negotiators, and representatives from both sides are now expected to leave Washington Saturday night.
During a meeting Wednesday at the White House, Clinton gave negotiators a "frame of reference" and "sharpened what the gaps were" -- after hearing from the negotiators themselves.
Clinton then said to the parties, "Here are the real differences," this official said. "It was all done verbally."
Death toll rising
In the Middle East, Israeli police said Friday's suicide bomber walked into a cafe near the Jewish settlement at Mehola in the northern tip of the West Bank, sat down and detonated his bomb. He died instantly.
Mehola is about 70 kilometers (50 miles) northeast of Jerusalem, in the Jordan Valley.
Eyewitnesses initially said that the explosion had also killed an Israeli, but police later determined that only the bomber died.
The same cafe was struck by a suicide bomber in 1993.
Elsewhere, a Palestinian man working in a greenhouse in the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in Gaza was shot and killed Friday. The Palestinians said the man was shot by Israelis. Israelis said he was wounded by Palestinian gunfire and later died of his wounds.
At Beit-Hagai in the West Bank, Israeli authorities said a Jewish settler shot and killed a Palestinian who was attempting to enter the settlement.
And in Hebron, a 17-year-old Palestinian was killed in a clash with Israeli troops, Palestinians said. There was no immediate comment from Israel.
The Palestine Red Crescent Society says that since the latest round of violence broke out September 28, 319 of the dead have been Palestinians. Israeli officials say 39 Israeli Jews and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed.
Palestinians, police clash in Jerusalem
Israeli security turned away Palestinians under the age of 45 and non-residents of Jerusalem who came to worship at al-Aqsa mosque in the walled Old City on the last Friday of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
An estimated 18,000 Muslims were allowed into Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), the disputed holy site where al-Aqsa is located. Jews know the site as the Temple Mount, where their ancient Temple of Solomon once stood.
About 3,000 police, some on horseback, were deployed in the area, checking identities and watching the crowds.
Some of those denied access to the mosque compound scuffled with police or threw stones at them. Palestinians also scuffled with police in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, but no major injuries were reported in either location.
Jerusalem holy places a key issue
A settlement on the control of the holy places in Jerusalem is a key issue facing the negotiators in Washington.
Israeli officials say the Israeli government has agreed to cede Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty.
However, Israeli officials maintain that any flexibility over Jerusalem on the part of the Israeli government would be contingent on Palestinian flexibility "on other issues." Among those issues: Palestinian demands for the "right of return of all Palestinian refugees" and Israeli demands for an "end of claims" or "end of conflict" declaration by the Palestinian Authority.
On the right of return of refugees, an Israeli official said that if "all Palestinian refugees that left in '47 or '48" were to return to Israel, Israel would become the equivalent of a bi-national state. Israel wants a future Palestinian state to absorb any return of refugees.
The Palestinian Authority representative in Washington, Edward Abington, said the negotiations have "quite a ways to go" and that they are "not as close as the spin Israel" has presented.
"The devil is in the details," said Abington, paraphrasing one of the Palestinian's primary negotiators at Bolling, Yasser Abed Rabbo.
Abed Rabbo departed Washington for home early Friday morning, due to the death of his brother. Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat will continue negotiating in his absence, officials said.
Abington also dismissed reports that talks had been or were in a "state of crisis." Instead, he characterized them a "just not nearly as close as Ben Ami is making them out to be."
U.S. officials have underscored that these talks are not expected to produce a breakthrough. Instead, they said, the goal is to see if differences on each issue can be reduced to such a level that "we could see another shot" at a summit.
If the differences were reduced, a senior administration official told CNN, the United States would likely want the leaders themselves to come separately to Washington.
This would not be a summit, he said. It would be an opportunity to see if the "next logical step" might be a summit before President Clinton leaves office next month.
Talks could benefit Barak
Barak resigned on December 10, forcing a special election to be held on February 6. Barak is running for re-election, saying he wanted the vote to be a mandate for his policies.
In polls, Barak is trailing his opponent, right-wing Likud party chairman Ariel Sharon, and some analysts believe he has little or no chance of winning unless he does produce a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu, who has made a challenge to Barak contingent on the Israeli Knesset dissolving itself and holding a new general election, said he believes the parliament will do so "sooner rather than later."
Progress made at Mideast talks
Knesset, The Israeli Parliament
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