Seeking to build on the first meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat since the Camp David Middle East summit began, negotiators held a third day of high-stake peace talks Thursday.
With President Bill Clinton taking a temporary break from the proceedings, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright took charge of the US team, planning intense discussions with various officials amid a news blackout imposed by Washington.
"There's a very full day planned," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.
"The secretary will continue the pattern of meetings that have been occurring over the last two days and continue to work on moving the ball forward."
Boucher confirmed an Arafat-Barak meeting which lasted about an hour before a group "Mediterranean barbecue" dinner hosted by Clinton but declined to provide any details of the talk.
"They met with each other on their own initiative," he said, adding that members of the leaders' delegations had also been present.
An Israeli source said the first two days of the summit had covered preparatory talks and that serious practical debates on the thorniest issues dividing the two sides were to take place Thursday before Clinton returns to Camp David in the late afternoon.
But Boucher refused to say what Thursday's talks would encompass, citing the news blackout.
The two sides remain at loggerheads over all the core issues: the future of Jerusalem, the borders of a Palestinian state, the fate of 3.7 million Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlers and security guarantees for Israel.
Israel indicated again earlier Thursday that it was ready to seal a limited deal.
Officials at the summit said Barak brought to the summit a plan that would give the Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem wide-ranging autonomy.
Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said on Israeli public radio that without a settlement on Jerusalem "there can be no solution" to the conflict.
Sneh also wrote to The Washington Post saying the summit was the "last chance" for a peace agreement. A failure, he said, "would cause overwhelming despair for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples."
He said Israel would be willing to compromise on municipal-level matters, provided it retained sovereignty over the whole of the holy city.
Israel insists that all of Jerusalem must remain its own united, eternal capital, while the Palestinians demand annexed east Jerusalem as their own capital.
Meanwhile, a potential storm was brewing up over Arafat's intention to stage a meeting of a dozen Palestinian leaders at Camp David during the summit.
Five of the leaders had already arrived in Washington by Thursday for the parley of PLO executive committee members along with opposition figures from the ex-communist People's Party and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said a Palestinian official, who asked not to be named.
"President Arafat conferred with Clinton personally on this," said committee member Suleiman Najab.
"We are part of the delegation, but the Americans have made it difficult for us to confer and consult with the delegation," he said by telephone from Washington, referring to Arafat's negotiating team isolated at Camp David.
However he added, "We will find a solution to this."
Boucher said the United States had not been asked to approve such a meeting at the heavily-guarded retreat but noted there were provisions to bring a "limited number of people for a limited period of time as we decide is necessary."
"I'm not trying to open the door very wide, but at this point we don't have a request for that specific group," he said.
Barak's spokesman said Israel expected the summit to go on until a deal is struck.
"We are going to stay for as long as it is necessary to hammer out an agreement," said spokesman Gadi Baltiansky. "We could continue while the president is away."
Clinton is scheduled to leave for Japan for the G-8 summit next Wednesday July 19th and to return to Washington on July 25th.
Israeli officials said Washington opposes a series of summits and will do everything within its power to bridge the gaps between the parties in one prolonged summit -- THURMONT, Maryland (AFP)
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