THURMONT - Small signs of progress emerged from the thickly veiled Camp David peace talks yesterday as Middle East and U.S. delegates slogged through their third day of negotiations and Israelis and Palestinians moved to bring previously unannounced delegates inside the presidential retreat.
"I think that things are going in the right direction," said Michael Melchior, an Israeli Cabinet member who said he speaks several times a day by phone to Israeli negotiators at Camp David. "We're speaking to the people there and this is what they tell us."
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright took over temporarily as lead U.S. negotiator yesterday as President Clinton traveled to Baltimore to address the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She met separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who held their first bilateral meeting of the summit Wednesday night.
Clinton returned to Camp David yesterday afternoon after stopping briefly to hail the signing of a U.S.-Vietnam trade agreement - a deal reached after four years of grueling negotiations.
"I will take the energy I feel here from all these people back to Camp David and make the argument that they should follow suit," Clinton said.
"Former adversaries can come together to find common ground in a way that benefits all their people, to let go of the past and embrace the future, to forgive and to reconcile," Clinton said.
"The delegations are grappling with the core issues," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "These are tough issues for all of them. They involve their vital interests."
Barak and Arafat are maneuvering with shaky domestic support.
With a self-imposed deadline for a final peace agreement just two months away, both leaders have tried to broaden their base by inviting new delegates to Camp David.
On Wednesday, Dan Meridor, a former member of the conservative Likud bloc and the powerful chairman of the Israeli parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, joined the talks, Israeli officials said.
Meridor served as finance minister under Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and was a Cabinet minister in the government of Menachem Begin, who led the Israeli delegation in the 1978 Camp David talks that led to a historic and lasting peace between Israel and Egypt.
Now in the Center Party, which is part of Barak's ruling coalition, Meridor's presence at Camp David gives Barak a better foothold among Israeli conservatives, who have been harshly critical of his parley with Arafat and Clinton.
A poll by Israel Radio gave Barak another political boost yesterday, only days after he narrowly survived a confidence vote in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. The poll showed that 60 percent of Israelis surveyed support Barak's presence at Camp David.
Arafat also tried to broaden his support by reaching out to three senior Palestinians. Yesterday, they were in Washington waiting for U.S. permission to enter Camp David, at Arafat's request, a Palestinian official said.
By inviting Suliman Najjab, Samir Ghosha and Taysir Khaled to the presidential retreat, Arafat is trying to secure backing from several important factions in the Palestinian world, Middle East analysts said.
Najjab, who recently moved his residence to the Palestinian territories, was part of the diaspora of thousands of Palestinians who fled to Lebanon, Syria, Europe and other places during and after the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948.
The fate of the Palestinian refugees and their descendents, who now number 3.5 million, is one of the difficult "core issues" in the talks. Arafat demands a "right of return" for all refugees; Israel refuses.
Ghosha, the second potential new Palestinian delegate, comes from a large family in Jerusalem and presumably will represent the views of Palestinians in that city, said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, head of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs.
The status of Jerusalem is another crucial issue on the table at Camp David. The Palestinians want Arab East Jerusalem as their capital; Barak demands an undivided city under Israeli sovereignty.
Khaled, the third Palestinian, represents opposition members in Damascus. Like the other two, he sits on the Palestinian Central Council and demanded to be consulted in connection with the Camp David talks, Hadi said.
"Arafat is summoning them to feel the water and see the reaction before he moves forward" in the negotiations, Hadi said.
Other than reporting who meets with whom and when, U.S. officials have supplied few details of the talks and refused to say whether progress is being made.
"I think I should say nothing about what's going on at Camp David," Clinton said yesterday before returning to the presidential retreat. "The less I say, the better our chances of success."
The Barak-Arafat meeting Wednesday night lasted an hour at Arafat's Birch Cabin, which Begin occupied during the 1978 Camp David summit.
Diplomatic sources characterized the meeting as "serious" in tone but said it did not provide any breakthroughs on core issues.
Barak and Arafat "met each other on their own initiative," not at the request of the Americans, said Boucher. 'There are a variety of conversations going on in different combinations, and this is the kind of thing we expect to happen."
The three dozen delegates assembled in the Catoctin Mountains are addressing some of the most delicate, politically volatile issues in the Middle East. Arafat demands a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with Jerusalem as its capital
Israel has agreed to the idea of a Palestinian state. But in deference to thousands of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, Barak refuses to surrender all of the land that Arafat wants.
Reports from the Middle East hinted yesterday at how the problem of territory might be resolved at Camp David.
Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin predicted to Israel Radio that negotiators in Maryland "will talk about swapping land."
Reuters quoted an unnamed Israeli official as saying that the Palestinians had indicated a willingness to trade West Bank land near Jerusalem occupied by Jewish settlers for land held by Israel near Gaza.
Sun staff writer Mark Matthews contributed to this article.