Barak and Arafat meet, pledge every effort to reach pact


JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat held their first meeting last night since a failed summit at Camp David and assured President Clinton in a phone call that the two sides would examine any way that could lead to peace, Barak's office said.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were to leave for Washington early today for talks set up by U.S. envoy Dennis Ross that the Americans hope will help break a two-month impasse over Jerusalem and other crucial issues.

There was no immediate comment from the Palestinians, who in recent days have sounded pessimistic about the chances for progress before the U.S. presidential elections in November. But in a statement from the prime minister's office midway through last night's meeting, both sides said they were prepared to take an open-minded look at any proposals the Americans put forward to bridge the gaps.

When Clinton called the two leaders at Barak's home, they told him they are "determined to make every effort and utilize any possibility" to reach an accord, the statement said. They told negotiating teams "to do their utmost" to bridge the gaps and "not spare any effort or time" to examine any way that can lead to progress.

Only the day before, Barak had said that maneuvering room and flexibility were exhausted.

The chief stumbling block remains control over the revered plateau in Jerusalem known to Muslims as Haram al Sharif, the third-holiest site in Islam, and to Jews as the Temple Mount, site of the first and second temples.

Israel has refused to grant sovereignty to the Palestinians or "any Islamic body," in response to Arafat's suggestion that it be placed under the Jerusalem Committee of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The committee is headed by the king of Morocco, who is friendly toward Israel.

Palestinians have rejected Israel's proposal to put the United Nations Security Council in control.

The sides also are still divided on the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes they fled or were expelled from in Israel in 1948 and over the questions of borders and security. Israel has suggested putting aside some "core issues" for later, but the Palestinians have refused to accept anything less than a comprehensive agreement.

Clinton and Barak are under time pressure, which works to Arafat's tactical advantage. Clinton wants to clinch a deal before his presidency ends in January. Barak faces the potential collapse of his governing coalition in late October, when parliament reconvenes.

Israel's foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, attended the meeting with Arafat after holding talks earlier in the day in Egypt and Jordan. In Cairo, where he met with President Hosni Mubarak, Ben-Ami said the sides must agree on a timetable for an agreement covering the core issues.

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