US President Bill Clinton was to hold a White House "working session" Wednesday with top Israeli and Palestinian negotiators as they entered a second day of peace talks in Washington.
Still trying to forge an elusive Middle East peace only 30 days before he leaves office, Clinton was to see Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat as violence raged on in the region dampening the prospects for peace.
"He will meet with them together to discuss where they are in the negotiations and see whether we can find a find a way to move the process forward and stop the violence," White House spokesman Jake Siewert said.
The negotiators were expected to meet with Clinton around 1:40 pm (1840 GMT) for about 45 minutes, he told reporters.
Asked whether the gathering signaled greater personal involvement by Clinton, Siewert said "he's ready to do whatever he can do to help, but ultimately we're on the parties' timetable."
But "it's up to them to make the hard decisions and decide what they can agree upon to end the violence," he said, adding "we don't have any trip to the Middle East under contemplation" before Clinton leaves office January 20.
The White House meeting comes amid conflicting signals from the region over the prospects for Clinton's final push for peace but as the negotiators continues their discussions at Bolling Air Force Base.
Those "talks are continuing," a State Department official said, declining to describe the tenor or tone of separate meetings between the US peace team and the two sides that began Tuesday at Bolling.
"The talks continued late into the night Tuesday and they are continuing Wednesday," an Israeli official said, adding that the discussions are being held "in a small space, where negotiators are constantly in contact, and are able to talk informally."
The air base has been completely sealed off from the press and public, reflecting the US belief that the talks should be conducted in total secrecy.
However, negotiators from both sides said Tuesday they were not optimistic about progress being made at Bolling given continuing clashes in the West Bank and Gaza that have left nearly 350 people dead over the past 11 weeks.
On Wednesday, Israeli forces killed three Palestinians, including a 10-year-old boy, deaths that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat warned could ruin the peace process.
"These actions sabotage the US attempts ... to push the peace process forward and will only destroy the peace process," Arafat told reporters in Gaza.
As the Bolling talks got underway on Tuesday, the State Department said they would not be productive unless the clashes came to an end.
"It's still very critical that the cycle of violence be broken," spokesman Philip Reeker he told reporters. "If negotiations are to be successful, the situation on the ground will have to change."
But as Arafat delivered his warning, an Israeli envoy visiting Egypt on behalf of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, tried to soften the tone, saying he was optimistic that progress could be achieved.
"There is enormous (Israeli) effort to ensure this particular round will be as successful as possible and the message coming out of Washington will open the road to a summit conference" of Barak, Arafat and Clinton, Yossi Sarid said.
He called the Israeli negotiating team, led by Ben Ami, "the most moderate, dovish team in our history."
His comments followed another sign of possible compromise when an Israeli minister close to Barak said Tuesday that Israel could give up sovereignty over the al-Aqsa mosque compound in east Jerusalem, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, one of the highest hurdles blocking a deal.
The status of the holy city of Jerusalem which both sides claim as a capital, its religious sites, the nature of Palestinian sovereignty and the borders of a state and the future of Palestinian refugees are among the thorniest issues still to be resolved -- WASHINGTON (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)