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Barak, Arafat Come Together In Attempt to Break Deadlock

By Tracy Wilkinson

Under U.S. pressure and cloak of darkness, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met late Monday night 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 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 is keen to secure a peace deal before he leaves office. Time is also short for Barak, who faces a mutinous Parliament that could throw him out of office when it reconvenes next month.