Mideast Peace Talks Intensify

Sunday, July 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

THURMONT, Md. (AP) — Palestinian delegation sources at the Camp David talks signaled optimism Sunday about reaching a Mideast accord, but Israeli officials said no breakthrough was in the offing.

U.S. spokesmen, meanwhile, said the pace of talks at the rustic presidential retreat was picking up, with only three full days remaining before President Clinton is to leave for Japan. The summit began Tuesday.

Entering a sixth day of talks, ``We will look for further intensification of these discussions,'' White House spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Saturday night. The negotiations moved back into high gear with the end of the Jewish Sabbath at sundown, he said.

President Clinton planned to attend church services at the Camp David chapel and then meet with his negotiating team, a U.S. official said.

Palestinian delegation sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, cited progress on some issues. Until now, the Palestinians, who came reluctantly to the Mideast peace talks, had been largely pessimistic in their assessments.

But several Israeli Cabinet ministers who had spoken by telephone to Prime Minister Ehud Barak said there was no basis for such a claim of progress. Foreign Minister David Levy, who chose not to accompany Barak to the talks, was especially downbeat.

``I am worried,'' Levy told reporters in Jerusalem. ``The situation there is far from an easy one, and there is no sign that the gaps are narrowing.''

The main points of dispute are the boundaries of a future Palestinian state, the fate of several million Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital.

Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, an architect of the landmark Oslo accords, told Israel's army radio that the talks were at a crossroads.

``It is hard at this point to give some kind of impression of optimism more than yesterday or the day before yesterday, because there has not been a breakthrough,'' Beilin said.

Clinton met with Barak on Saturday evening before a dinner with all three negotiating teams, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Crowley said.

Also Saturday, Barak telephoned Vice President Al Gore and Republican Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the likely candidates to succeed Clinton in January, diplomatic sources said.

``Governor Bush said it was a friendly, brief call and that Prime Minister Barak let him know they were working hard but had reached no breakthrough at that point,'' campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said Sunday. A spokesman for the Gore campaign did not immediately return a message Sunday.

Taking a break from their own ancient quarrels, about 15 members of the Israeli and Palestinian delegations had a firsthand look at the scene of the Civil War's bloodiest battle.

The delegates took a two-hour tour of the battlefield near Gettysburg, Pa., about 15 miles from Camp David and the site of the July 1863 engagement that was generally considered the Civil War's turning point. More than 51,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured in the fighting.

None of the tour participants was a member of the official negotiating teams. These delegates were staying at nearby Emmitsburg.

Since the three leaders first sat down together on Tuesday, Clinton has shuttled between the two sides in talks described as contentious and difficult.

Summit participants have agreed to disclose nothing of the substance of the negotiations. U.S. officials briefing reporters have repeatedly used words like ``grappling'' and ``struggling'' to characterize the efforts. At one point, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart described the issues as ``intractable.''

Clinton is set to leave Wednesday for a summit in Japan of the world's industrial powers and Russia, and U.S. officials have said that should not be considered a deadline for wrapping up the peace talks.

But Crowley said: ``It is still our desire to see an agreement ... before the president leaves for Tokyo.''

Barak left home July 10 amid a political crisis triggered by the collapse of his governing coalition. Israeli spokesman Gadi Baltiansky told Israel radio that it would be difficult for the prime minister to remain away from Israel for much more than a total of two weeks.

Palestinian delegation sources said as far as the timing went, anything was possible.