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Barak, Arafat Meet to 'Break the Ice'

Mideast: Ties between the leaders had cooled recently. Officials hope the two can clear the air ahead of their aides' talks in Washington.


JERUSALEM — Under U.S. pressure and cloak of darkness, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat met late Monday for the first time in two months in a bid to break the negotiating deadlock that threatens peace in the Middle East.

It was the first working session the two leaders had held since the ambitious Camp David summit collapsed in late July over seemingly insurmountable disputes involving rival claims to the holy city of Jerusalem, among other issues. Monday's summit came as senior negotiators headed to Washington for a fresh round of talks.

Arafat, traveling by Israeli military helicopter from his headquarters in the Gaza Strip, joined Barak at his private home in the affluent central Israeli town of Kochav Yair. About 30 Jewish settlers opposed to giving land to the Palestinians demonstrated outside as Arafat arrived.

Both Israeli and Palestinian officials said they hoped that the session would diminish the considerable ill will that has grown between the two leaders in recent weeks. In fact, most officials involved spoke more of psychology than real substance.

"Personal contact is very important, and one would hope that [the meeting] can create a better atmosphere," Barak's Cabinet secretary, Yitzhak Herzog, said in an interview. "They can explain their positions, clarify their ideas."

Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian negotiator, said his expectations of a real breakthrough were low.

"I don't have high hopes," Shaath said, "but I think it's good if it breaks the ice and it gets them to understand each other more, and if it somehow produces a favorable environment for serious talk for later, if not tonight."

President Clinton, with hours of personal diligence invested in Middle East diplomacy, is keen to secure a peace deal before he leaves office. Time also is short for Barak, who faces a mutinous parliament that could throw him out of office when it reconvenes next month.

In Washington, American mediators are expected to present a set of "bridging proposals" designed to bring the two sides closer together. Israel has hinted in the last few days that it would accept a peace treaty that put aside the contentious question of Jerusalem for now--or even a deal that would place the Temple Mount under administration of the U.N. Security Council.

Barak's office had issued a statement Monday night saying that the prime minister and Arafat would "exchange opinions" but not engage in meaty negotiation. Still, U.S. mediators frequently have pointed to direct intervention by the two leaders as the only way that progress can be made.

In contrast to their relationship now, Barak and Arafat seemed genuinely warm and friendly during their first meeting 14 months ago after Barak's election. That event at the Erez crossing point between Israel and the Gaza Strip set a tone full of promise that decades of bloody conflict could finally be resolved.

But as core issues came to the table, the prospects of a solution dimmed with the realization of just how painful compromise on both sides would be.

Monday night's meeting came amid a rush of diplomatic activity. Four senior Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were traveling late Monday or early today to Washington for what Israeli television described as a three-day crunch of negotiations before the start of the Jewish new year Friday.

"We don't have an excess of time," Israel's acting foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, said Monday between lightning trips to Amman and Cairo, where he briefed Jordanian King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Ben-Ami then joined the Arafat-Barak summit and was to form part of the team going to Washington.

"We are facing what can be defined as the last show of the peace process," he said.

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