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Hoping to Revive Talks, Albright Meets With Middle East Leaders

By Norman Kempster

Refusing to take no for an answer, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her top mediators held separate meetings Thursday with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in an effort to revive the Middle East peace talks that seemed all but dead last week.

Albright conferred over dinner in her suite at the Waldorf Astoria hotel Thursday night with Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s chief negotiator and acting foreign minister.

Earlier in the day, U.S. peace envoy Dennis B. Ross met with Palestinian negotiators Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Dahlan. Friday, Nabil Shaath, one of the top advisers to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, will meet in Washington with National Security Adviser Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger.

Ben-Ami said the sessions are intended to determine “whether there is ground for agreement or if it is impossible to reach agreement.”

He said negotiators have no more than 10 days to two weeks to make that determination. If an agreement is seen as possible, then the two sides will keep talking in an effort to close the deal.

On Thursday, Albright told a news conference at the United Nations that she and her aides are prepared to keep the discussions going for as long as necessary -- in New York, Washington or the Middle East.

“Talks are movable,” she said. “I will be deeply involved in them one way or the other. These talks are one of my major priorities. The location is not the issue.”

President Clinton met separately last week at the U.N. with Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. After those meetings, Barak and Arafat spoke gloomily of missed opportunities and suggested that the peace process had run its course after seven years of off-and-on negotiations.

But it was clear that Israel, the Palestinians and the United States were all unwilling to let go.

Albright praised the Palestinian Central Council for postponing for two months a deadline -- originally set for Wednesday -- for proclaiming a Palestinian state whether or not there is agreement at the bargaining table.

“I believe that is positive and has provided some breathing space for negotiations,” she said.

In a speech Wednesday to the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Albright said: “Even though the going is hard, Israelis and Palestinians still have an opportunity to move forward toward an historic agreement.”

During the Camp David talks that broke down in July, Ben-Ami told the same gathering, “We were able to turn the sea that separates us from the Palestinians into a river.” But he said it takes courage to bridge a river, and he suggested that Arafat and the Palestinians are unwilling to take that step.

Shaath scoffed at Ben-Ami’s suggestion, saying Palestinians are prepared to take risks if necessary to get an equitable agreement.

“I think we are passing through a period of post-Camp David malaise,” Shaath said. “I think there is a chance.”

All sides agreed that the Camp David talks foundered on a dispute over control of the Old City in Jerusalem, which contains sites holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians. But both Ben-Ami and Shaath said the negotiators must also tackle other difficult issues, such as the status of Palestinian refugees and the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.