Uncertainty swirled Friday over a possible Middle East summit as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators entered a fourth day of talks amid conflicting signs of progress and crisis in the peace process, said AFP.
Despite reports in the region of substantial headway on key issues made in the talks, Palestinian officials were decidedly pessimistic and violence flared anew in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arrived at Bolling Air Force Base in southeast Washington -- where the negotiators have been ensconced under a news blackout since Tuesday -- shortly after 11:00 am (1600 GMT) to begin meeting with the delegations, State Department officials said.
"We continue to be encouraged by the commitment and the spirit of openness shown by both sides in an effort to overcome their differences," one official said, adding that the length of Albright's discussions was uncertain.
A Friday meeting between the two sides, Albright and President Bill Clinton, that had earlier been described as "likely," then downgraded to "possible," was eventually scrapped.
"It will not happen today," a senior White House official said. "There is still an option that the parties meet with the president (Saturday), but that truly depends on the progress the parties make today."
It was not clear why the Clinton meeting was off, but earlier, Palestinian officials described the talks as in crisis, in stark contrast to other reports.
Speaking in Gaza, an advisor to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Nabil Abu Rudeina, said reports of progress were incorrect.
"It is not accurate what has been said about progress," he told AFP. "There was not serious progress up until this point. It is still too early to talk about progress."
Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the Palestinian delegation at Bolling, was quoted in an Arabic newspaper as saying the talks were in a "hard crisis and there has not been progress on any issue."
Abed Rabbo told Reuters on Thursday that he expected an Israeli compromise on Jerusalem by Saturday, but both sides were to work on details.
But his colleague, Saeb Erekat was pessimistic.
There are deep differences over all issues now," Erekat told Reuters from Bolling Air Force base in Washington. "The gaps are wide. Yesterday (Thursday) we walked out of the meeting because of these gaps and we sat after that for long hours with (U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis) Ross and his team, but we did not solve the problem."
Erekat added that a planned meeting with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Thursday was cancelled "because of the crisis.”
A Palestinian official was quoted by Reuters as saying the "crisis emerged" when Israeli negotiator Shlomo Ben-Ami "returned to talking about annexing 10 percent of the Palestinian territories when they had earlier offered five percent.”
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, added: "There was almost a fistfight between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators."
However, State Department officials told Albawaba.com in Washington that they were encouraged by the progress made so far at the peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Washington.
“The Israelis have moved their position and are willing to give the Palestinians more land in the West Bank, but not necessarily on Jerusalem,” an official said.
He added that “we are encouraged by the commitment and openness shown by both sides in an effort to overcome their differences as well as to take advantage of the time we have left for negotiations.”
Other US officials would not characterize the atmosphere at the talks, but stressed that the discussions had not broken off, according to AFP on Friday.
"Obviously, these are tough issues and it can get tense," said one official. "But the bottom line, no matter what any of these reports say, is that they are still in there and talking."
Clinton, who leaves office on January 20, is anxious to seal a deal before the end of his term and has reportedly suggested January 10 as a date for a summit with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat.
In a Wednesday meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat, Clinton laid out "parameters" of a possible agreement that included suggestions on bridging gaps between the two sides on the most sensitive issues dividing them, Ben Ami said.
After meeting separately and together with US Middle East envoy Dennis Ross all day Thursday, the negotiating teams worked into the night hashing out various scenarios that could lead to agreement on the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees, officials said.
Washington has made ending the violence a priority and the State Department official said if it could be quelled and enough progress made towards outlining a peace deal, a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories by a senior US official could occur as early as Wednesday.
"The most likely scenario, depending on progress, would be that someone would travel to the region next week," the official said.
According to AFP, Albright, Ross or national security adviser Sandy Berger are all possible candidates to make such a trip, but the Washington Post reported Friday that Berger was the preferred choice.
The official said no specific plans had been made -- (Several Sources)
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