THURMONT, Md. — With the Clinton administration describing the mood at Camp David as "tense," Israeli and Palestinian negotiators split into subcommittees Friday as they struggled to resolve the specific issues standing in the way of a peace agreement.
White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart's disclosure that the negotiators were meeting in small groups was the first firm indication that the talks have progressed beyond generalities.
On Friday night, the U.S. and Palestinian delegations joined the Israelis for a traditional Sabbath dinner. Although the three delegations have been eating their evening meal together since the summit started, there was added significance to the dinner at the start of the Jewish Sabbath after sunset.
White House spokesman P.J. Crowley said President Clinton sat beside Arafat during the dinner.
Nevertheless, Lockhart's assessment of the atmosphere was the most downbeat that any U.S. spokesman has offered. Earlier, U.S. officials asserted that the Israelis and Palestinians were "comfortable" with each other after years of off-and-on negotiations.
"These are intractable issues," Lockhart said. "These are issues that go to the vital interests of both of the parties, so this is very serious. At times, discussions are tense, but that should be no surprise to anyone."
However, there was no hint that the talks might break down. So far, Clinton is the only senior member of any delegation to leave the heavily guarded Camp David compound. Lockhart said late Friday that there are no plans for excursions to nearby attractions, as was done when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh met in January at Shepherdstown, W. Va.
"I'm not sure that anyone is describing this as fun," Lockhart said.
He said there will be no formal meetings today because of the Jewish Sabbath. However, he said there could be "informal discussions" among the delegations during the religious break. The talks will resume in earnest Sunday.
Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat have held only two formal face-to-face meetings since the talks began Tuesday. Most of the summit so far has resembled shuttle diplomacy, with Clinton and his U.S. team meeting with the Israelis and Palestinians in turn. On Friday, for instance, Clinton met alone on the terrace of his cabin with Barak, then walked the short distance to Arafat's lodging for talks with the Palestinian leader, who was accompanied only by an interpreter.
Barak and Arafat, accompanied by their top aides, met without U.S. mediators Wednesday night. On Tuesday night, the first of the summit, Barak, Arafat and Clinton held what was expected to be the first of a series of three-way leadership meetings. But so far, there has not been another.
All three delegations--about 30 people in all--regularly eat dinner together. But Lockhart said the seating arrangement does not encourage interchanges between Arafat and Barak, who share a table with Clinton but are separated by two or three other diners.
Under the rules agreed to by all three delegations at the start of the talks, only the U.S. government is authorized to make public statements about the summit. And U.S. officials have provided very little information about what is going on inside the compound.
Israeli and Palestinian officials who are not members of the delegation privately have provided a welter of often conflicting reports on the negotiations.
For instance, Palestinian sources said U.S. peace envoy Dennis B. Ross offered a compromise proposal Thursday night that the Palestinians rejected as being too close to the original Israeli position. The Palestinian sources said the plan was withdrawn.
Although Lockhart refused to comment on that report, U.S. officials said before the summit that the United States would offer its own ideas for compromises when conditions seem to warrant it.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met at nearby Emmitsburg, Md., with six Palestinian radicals who came to the United States hoping for a meeting with Arafat inside Camp David. Lockhart said Albright "listened carefully to their point of view."
The Palestinians said the U.S. hosts declined to allow them to enter Camp David, the retreat of U.S. presidents. Arafat invited the group, including some militants who have been critical of his policies in the past, in an effort to broaden the base of support for his peacemaking efforts.