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Pace of Mideast talks hints at new progress


THURMONT - President Clinton pushed negotiations at Camp David back into overdrive yesterday, huddling with small knots of delegates until nearly dawn and then reconvening a few hours later in an all-day attempt to hone the fine details of potential Middle East peace.

Jumping almost immediately into intensive talks after his return from Japan late Sunday, Clinton met only briefly with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Sunday before closeting himself with lower-level representatives from the three sides.

The president met almost nonstop with delegates in various combinations yesterday in his Aspen cabin. "There have been a variety of people involved, depending on the issue they were discussing," said presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart.

One way to obtain a potential peace agreement, Lockhart said, "is to sit and go through all the substantive detail necessary, through a number of issues, [identifying] the work that needs to be done to get there."

Sunday, U.S. officials had said that Clinton's assessment of the negotiations upon his return would be critical in determining whether they were worth continuing. By that measure, yesterday's marathon meeting appeared to indicate new progress in talks that all but broke down last Wednesday.

"The fact that he was up until 5 a.m., working through the issues in a very personal, hands-on way - and that he was back at it again early this morning - should lead you to believe that he thinks staying here for the time being is worthwhile," Lockhart said.

The summit is two weeks old, longer by a day than the 1978 Camp David talks that led to peace between Israel and Egypt. Lockhart refused to speculate when it might end, saying, "There's no way to predict how long this will go."

But the momentum of negotiations yesterday and widespread reports in the Middle East of Israeli concessions on Palestinian demands for sovereignty in East Jerusalem suggested that the sides are closer to agreement than ever. But officials from all three sides cautioned that the issues are still tough and gaps remain.

The talks are aimed at ending 52 years of hostility between Israel and Palestinian Arabs who were displaced after Israel's creation in 1948.

Barak and Arafat ate dinner with Clinton and about 30 other Camp David delegates Sunday night. But neither Middle East leader met with the president until yesterday evening, when Arafat spent about an hour with Clinton, and U.S. officials said a meeting between Clinton and Barak was possible.

"It's a pretty safe bet that meetings will go past midnight," White House spokesman P. J. Crowley said last night.

Yesterday's discussions continued to involve the ancient city of Jerusalem, holy to three religions, and claimed as a capital by Israel and Palestine.

But the talks also touched on the problems of justice for Palestinian refugees, the borders of a potential Palestinian state and Israeli security concerns.

"They are discussing all the issues," said Hassan Abdel Rahman, head of the Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who said he had spoken to delegates inside Camp David. "And the [U.S.] president is involved in the details."

Another topic possibly on the table is the future of Jonathan Pollard, an Israeli convicted of spying on the United States and imprisoned since 1987. Barak may ask for Pollard's release in return for making difficult Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.

Lockhart said he was unaware of any discussion about Pollard at Camp David, but he added that top Israeli and U.S. officials rarely gather "where at some point it is not raised."

Over the weekend, George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, traveled to Camp David, U.S. officials confirmed yesterday. Tenet, who opposes Pollard's release, visited the compound to discuss security assurances sought by Israelis and Palestinians, Lockhart said.

U.S. officials declined to say if yesterday's negotiations involved written proposals or a central document that both sides were working from.

But foreign policy analysts said it would be unusual, on the 14th day of the summit, if at least some peace proposals hadn't been committed to paper other than in informal written notes.

Fatigue again was becoming a factor.

Lockhart called the talks "exhaustive and exhausting," adding later, "There is a breaking point at some point, but it remains to be seen whether exhaustion will help the process or hurt the process."

In another sign that Camp David talks are in earnest and headed toward a possible agreement, Arabic leaders continued to consult one another yesterday on the progress of the summit, and the Israeli opposition turned up the volume on its criticism of Barak.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited Saudi Arabia and planned to discuss the Camp David talks in person with Jordan's King Abdullah and Syria's Bashar el Assad as well.

Clinton and Arafat have spoken by phone to Mubarak, Abdullah and other Arab leaders in recent days, underscoring the importance both place on obtaining wide Arab support for an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

In Israel, Ariel Sharon, leader of the hawkish Likud bloc, told Israel Radio that Barak "has entangled us in an intolerable situation." Sharon called for early elections "so that there will be responsible leadership that will bring a better peace, a correct peace" and "peace with a united Jerusalem."

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Barak's predecessor, called a news conference to accuse Barak of crossing "all the red lines held by all Israeli governments. "I am speaking to you today as a citizen, a concerned citizen," Netanyahu said. "To my sadness, according to most of the reports from Camp David, what is happening there does not answer our expectations and hopes."

Clinton's schedule could again affect the talks. The president has left the talks twice; once to go to Japan and once to speak to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Baltimore.

Yesterday he was scheduled to travel to Bentonville, Ark., for the day to attend the memorial service of a family friend. Thursday the president is to meet in Washington with President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines.

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