US President Bill Clinton promised Palestinian President Yasser Arafat Thursday that the United States would play a more active role in the stymied Middle East peace talks and was encouraged by signs of progress.
After greeting Arafat at the White House, Clinton noted the difficulties that remained as the clock ticked toward the May target date for an elusive agreement with Israel on the shape of a permanent peace.
As he mentioned in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak last week, although there were hurdles to overcome, Clinton was optimistic about making progress.
"We've reached a very serious time in the peace process, and both (Arafat) and Prime Minister Barak have set for themselves an ambitious timetable to reach a framework agreement as soon as they can and then a final agreement by the middle of September," Clinton told reporters in the Rose Garden as he headed in for talks with Arafat.
"So we're working hard on it, and I think we'll get some things done today," he said. "I think you all know what the issues are between the Israelis and the Palestinians that are difficult, but I think they can be bridged."
"We are prepared to play a more intensified role at the request of both parties," a senior administration official told AFP after the nearly three hours of talks on the Israeli-Palestinian track between the two leaders.
According to the official, who declined to be named, US mediators will ratchet up their involvement in the negotiations and the Palestinian and Israeli leaders will eventually enter into the talks themselves.
"We have begun a new phase in this process," the official said, noting that Clinton had met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the White House 10 days ago.
"They understand that they are facing a very imposing deadline that they have put in place and if they are going to move through these very difficult issues ... they will look to us as they have in the past for help," the official said.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, who have been meeting at Bolling air base here, are due to hold their third session of talks later this month.
Clinton himself will be ready to intervene at the appropriate time, according to the official, who cautioned, however, that "it remains for the parties to make the tough decisions."
The two leaders discussed all the issues needed to reach a framework accord on the final status agreement by May and for finalizing the definitive agreement by September 13, the official said without elaborating on specifics.
And the official said of Arafat and Barak: "They are focussed on the right issues. We are encouraged by that."
Asked whether Clinton warned Arafat against his threat to declare Palestinian statehood should the September deadline pass without a deal, the official said only that all final status issues were discussed including "statehood."
Nine representatives from the US and Palestinian sides attended the first half hour of the talks, and then Clinton met one-on-one with Arafat – (Several Sources)
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