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World - Middle East

Palestinians, Israelis continue effort in U.S. to wage peace

Arafat and Netanyahu
Arafat (top) and Netanyahu during the talks on Thursday.  

In this story:

October 16, 1998
Web posted at: 8:57 p.m. EDT (0057 GMT)

WYE MILLS, Maryland (CNN) - Far from the pressures of domestic politics and insulated from the media, Israeli and Palestinian leaders continued tough talks Friday aimed at breathing new life into the Mideast peace process.

U.S. President Clinton kicked off the talks Thursday at a secluded conference center overlooking the Chesapeake Bay in rural Maryland with a stern admonition to negotiators to break the 19-month stalemate and make strides toward peace.

"There is hard work ahead if we are to reach an agreement," Clinton told the opening session.

Earlier, flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, Clinton urged the two leaders to "break the logjam" in the peace process.

"Too much time has already been lost," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will preside over most of the talks Friday and throughout the weekend, with Friday's first meetings due to start at 9 a.m. EDT.

A U.S. spokesman said Thursday's peace talks opened in a "constructive and pragmatic atmosphere," although only a few hours had passed before negotiators reported the first heated exchange over the particularly thorny issue of security.

Face-to-face meeting for Arafat, Netanyahu?

U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said the summit was set up to facilitate direct contact between Netanyahu and Arafat, but no specific face-to-face meetings were planned.

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Clinton met separately with Netanyahu and Arafat on Thursday, and the three leaders shared dinner before the president headed home to Washington around midnight.

Clinton was heading to Chicago on Friday on a Democratic fund-raising trip, but he planned to return to Wye Mill for informal talks Saturday, when the Jewish Sabbath precludes official Israeli participation in negotiations.

Rubin said organizers specifically chose an "informal setting that would lend itself to informal discussions," noting that the Israeli and Palestinian delegations -- each numbering around 20 people -- were housed less than one-third of a mile apart. It was a distance, he noted, that was close enough to walk, or quickly ride in a golf cart.

U.S. officials, trying to keep a tight lid on news from the talks, said little about the substance of the talks Friday.

"I think the general feeling by all concerned was that they were creating a constructive and pragmatic relationship, atmosphere," Rubin told reporters.

But Palestinian negotiators said officials meeting to discuss security issues abruptly ended their talks Thursday evening after a heated exchange, which they said was sparked by a "provocative" comment by an Israeli official.

Palestinian says Clinton gave ultimatum for Tuesday

A senior Palestinian official said negotiators made no headway during the talks on Thursday, and that Clinton had some tough words about the need for success.

The Palestinian source quoted Clinton as saying, "I've been working on this for the last 17 months with no results. If there's no agreement and progress by late Monday or early Tuesday, we will reduce our involvement in this process."

Clinton also said that no issues should be delayed "or moved to other phases," the Palestinian official said.

Rubin, asked to comment, said that a Tuesday ultimatum was news to him.

"I received pretty reasonable readouts of the various meetings ... and I never heard anyone suggesting such a thing," he said.

"What we have said is that our goal is to complete the work, if possible, by Sunday. And we don't want to speculate what would happen after Sunday," Rubin said.

Israeli delegates declined to comment on the Palestinian account of the meetings, citing an agreement not to leak matters of substance to the media. But if leaks start, the Israelis may have to reciprocate, one Israeli delegate said.

The United States convened the talks in hopes of breaking a deadlock on the next stage of Israeli withdrawal from occupied areas of the West Bank and on Israel's security demands.

A deal would pave the way for talks on a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, which must be finished by May 1999 under a deal signed in Oslo, Norway, five years ago.

The central issue at hand is a U.S. proposal for Israel to pull back troops from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank in exchange for specific Palestinian assurances to crack down on militants and make firm security commitments.

Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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