- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2000

Israel's foreign minister said talks with Palestinians and President Clinton at the White House yesterday were serious and "fruitful," and that if the "new and positive" spirit prevailed, the talks could lead to a peace agreement.

"The general feeling is that these were very, very serious negotiations with a spirit that may lead to the conclusion of an agreement if we maintain the same spirit throughout," Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said outside the White House.

However, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was less enthusiastic about the chances of success, the latest effort to quell violence in the Middle East and reach a comprehensive peace accord.

"I really would not describe what we are doing in terms of progress or lack of it," Mr. Erekat said outside the White House. He said the talks this week, which have taken place primarily at Bolling Air Force Base, have been difficult.

Both sides agreed that unless success was certain, a summit meeting was unlikely at this time between Mr. Clinton, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Mr. Erekat and Mr. Ben-Ami came to Washington on Tuesday amid signs the two sides want to break a cycle of violence in which more than 330 people have been killed in the last three months.

They had separate meetings with Middle East envoy Dennis Ross at Bolling Air Force Base yesterday before meeting with Mr. Clinton for about 45 minutes at the White House.

Mr. Ben-Ami said the president "outlined what he sees as the essential parameters of these negotiations, or of a possible agreement."

"The remarks, the reflections of the president, were very helpful, and we are going to get back now to the negotiating table. I trust that this spirit will continue to prevail."

A three-way summit at Camp David in July failed to reach peace, and later high-level meetings in Paris, Egypt, Israel and the occupied territories failed to quell the violence that broke out Sept. 29.

Mr. Erekat said he did not want to "raise expectations."

"We have difficulties, but also we have determination to continue doing whatever it takes," he said. "I would not describe my attitude in terms of adjectives, optimism or pessimism. All I can tell you is that we are exerting every possible effort in order to achieve an agreement."

He downplayed the likelihood of one final summit meeting, before Mr. Clinton leaves office Jan. 20, that could bring Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat together.

"Nobody wants to convene a trilateral summit and to have a failure," Mr. Erekat said. "Unless we can ensure a success of the trilateral summit, I don't think it's advisable to convene one.

"And that's why this exercise that's taking place now we're turning every stone, and we're doing whatever it takes to see to it that we can reach understanding on the basis of the terms of reference provided for in the peace process."

The Israeli foreign minister agreed with his Palestinian counterpart that a summit was not around the corner.

"The president is willing to have a summit that is a conclusive summit," Mr. Ben-Ami said. "But for this to be effective, he needs to see that we are making progress, that the summit is not taken for granted.

"We need the summit to crown an effort rather than to be a substitute for negotiations."

He said that prior to the meeting with Mr. Clinton the two sides had discussed "in concepts, rather than in details, the question of Jerusalem, and we are now about to resume our talks on territory."

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright is to join the talks at Bolling today, and Mr. Ben-Ami said he hoped her visit "will take place after we have made some more progress."

The Palestinian negotiator listed the issues that remain in the way of a peace agreement: Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugees, borders of a Palestinian state, water and the Palestinian demand for withdrawal of the Israeli forces to the border that existed June 4, 1967.

White House spokesman P.J. Crowley said Mr. Clinton spent about 45 minutes with the Israeli and Palestinian teams and U.S. mediators led by Dennis Ross in the Cabinet Room at the White House.

"The president outlined for the negotiators how he thought they should proceed during this week," Mr. Crowley told reporters.

The talks were set up after Mr. Clinton spoke with Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat by phone. Mr. Crowley said the talks would continue through Saturday.

"The progress that's made this week is really up to them," he said.

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