Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed separate talks with US officials in Washington as outgoing President Bill Clinton marshaled his Middle East team for a final shot at reaching an elusive peace.
Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright were expected to meet with the two sides during the discussions that are expected to last until Friday but State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said no timetable for those visits had been established.
"We would expect during the course of the talks and their time here in Washington that the president and the secretary of state would at some point meet with the teams," Reeker told reporters.
Ahead of those interventions, talks between the two sides and US pointman Dennis Ross, his deputy Aaron Miller and others began shortly after noon (1700 GMT) at the Bolling Air Force Base, he said.
Reeker said "parallel bilateral discussions" as well as trilateral talks would continue for the next several days in the hope that the Israelis and Palestinians could be brought together alone.
"We may see, at some point, that the Israelis and Palestinians would meet directly on their own," Reeker said, noting that the top priority was to end 11 weeks of violence that has claimed more than 350 lives.
"It's still very critical that the cycle of violence be broken," he told reporters. "If negotiations are to be successful, the situation on the ground will have to change."
The Bolling talks are "a hopeful first step, but obviously the violence has to stop as well," he added.
Reeker spoke after the Palestinian delegation led by chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, and most the Israeli delegation, save Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami, arrived for the discussions.
Ben Ami was expected to arrive later Tuesday for the talks which are occurring amid a flurry of diplomatic activity in the region.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat arrived earlier in Cairo to consult with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on the peace process. On Wednesday, Mubarak was to have similar talks with Yossi Sarid, an envoy sent by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Another Barak envoy, Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, arrived in Jordan Tuesday for a meeting there with King Abdullah II.
US officials were reluctant to divulge any specific information about the schedule of meetings at Bolling, the agenda to be discussed or possible proposals Washington might make to break the impasse.
However, since the Camp David summit collapsed in July the parties remain at near polar odds over the most sensitive issues dividing them and if Clinton hopes to secure a peace deal by the time he leaves office in 31 days, quick and substantial progress must be made, officials allow.
Meanwhile, Barak is facing a political showdown with the hawkish Ariel Sharon in upcoming elections.
"Without movement this week, it's going to be extremely tough," a senior State Department official said, stressing that an end to the violence was key.
Beyond that, unresolved thorny issues include the status of the holy city of Jerusalem which both sides claim as a capital, the nature of Palestinian sovereignty and the borders of a state and the future of Palestinian refugees.
The flurry of activity comes as Clinton, who has made the peace process a top priority of his nearly eight years in office prepares to vacate the White House on January 20 to make way for President-elect George W. Bush.
State Department officials insist that Washington's efforts will continue no matter who is president, saying the peace process is not a partisan issue.
"It has been a top priority issue to all administrations, Republican or Democratic, and it is going to remain so in the future," Reeker said Monday.
Clinton has said numerous times he is available to assist peace efforts until the last minute of his presidency and Bush has also expressed commitment to continuing the push to end the conflict -- WASHINGTON (AFP)
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