Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak arrived in Washington Tuesday for talks with US President Bill Clinton, in a bid to blow life in the deadlocked peace process.
"It's a good moment to move the process forward. There is a lot of hard work that needs to be done," White House spokesman Mike Hammer said, pointing to fast approaching deadlines for ending the 50-year conflict.
Topping the agenda of the evening talks will be the Israeli-Palestinian framework accord that missed its March timetable and now is slated for May and must pave the way for a final peace deal in September.
Ehud Barak was cautious Monday about the chances of a breakthrough in the negotiations with the Palestinians or Syria ahead of the talks.
"Nobody can be forced to conclude an accord, the question is to know how much flexibility the two parties show, but there is no certainty of an accord being concluded in May," said a senior official in Barak's group on the plane taking him to Washington, which stopped in London late Monday.
The official, who asked for anonymity, was referring to the framework agreement on the final status of Palestinian territories which the two sides have pledged to conclude by mid-May.
The whirlwind trip, which includes talks with US envoy Dennis Ross, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, was initiated by Israel, a US administration official said.
"The Israelis were interested in having these chats and we thought it would be a good idea," the official said on condition of anonymity.
Barak is to deliver his final offer to Clinton, according to his spokesman, who said on Israeli television Monday that the prime minister will spell out where "exactly the 'red lines' are that Israel will not go beyond."
But Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who follows Barak to the White House on April 20, is attacking Barak as the "leader of hardliners and settlers" and accusing him of foot-dragging in negotiations.
Barak recently announced the annexation of three Israeli settlements, throwing fuel on the hottest fire in the dispute: the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the status of Jerusalem.
Despite the differences, however, the Israeli-Palestinian track is where US officials may hope to make the most headway, as the Syrian track is frozen and the process with Lebanon has not yet begun.
High-level Palestinian-Israeli talks are continuing at Bolling air base just outside Washington. US officials insist -- if somewhat defensively -- that progress is being made there.
"It is not our assessment that they are a waste of time," State Department spokesman James Rubin said in response to Arafat's suggestion that the negotiations were futile.
Barak will also be discussing the shattered peace talks with Syria and plans for pulling his troops out of Lebanon.
The resumption of that track after a four-year hiatus had enthusiasm running high here earlier this year, but the talks broke down almost immediately with little prospect for a restart.
The Palestinian Authority has proposed to the United States that the target date for concluding the framework agreement of the permanent settlement, currently set for May 13 after its original date of February 13, should now be postponed until June, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported Tuesday.
"The Palestinians are complaining about the lack of progress in the talks, but they are not showing a sense of urgency regarding the framework agreement," an American source said.
In Ramallah, Palestine, a senior Palestinian official told AFP that A "miracle" will be needed if the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations currently underway in the United States are to make progress.
"Without a clear political will by the Israelis to deal seriously with the problems, it is very hard to believe we can finish our work on time," the official, who asked not to be named, said in a phone interview.
The subject of the framework agreement will be at the center of talks that Clinton will hold tonight with Barak and next week with President Arafat - (Several Sources)- Mug shots AFP Archive.
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