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Clinton talks with Barak in Portugal to spur Mideast peace process
"We just really needed to have a face-to-face meeting and we needed to do it in this timeframe," Clinton said before talks began.
The meeting comes against a backdrop of Israel's pullout from southern Lebanon, a move that Clinton described as "daring" and one that heightened both anxieties and expectations, he said.
"It has changed the landscape ... because things are up in the air again," he said.
"It also imposes a much greater sense of urgency ... I think the consequences of inaction are now likely to be more difficult because of this move."
Before meeting Clinton, Barak accused Palestinian negotiators of foot-dragging. He told reporters, "In recent weeks we have seen some dragging of feet in regard to the running of negotiations."
Clinton talks to Arafat before meeting
Clinton invited Barak to his hotel for talks before heading to Germany for the next leg of his European tour. He had spoken on Wednesday to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat for about 20 minutes.
The meeting was held as Israelis and Palestinians were to resume talks on the framework intended to prepare the ground for a final accord on the nature of a Palestinian state and its borders.
White House officials describe Thursday's meeting between Clinton and Barak as a session critical to assessing whether a mix of recent Mideast developments has created an opening for a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart warned against expecting any breakthroughs in the talks with Barak.
"You know, obviously we're at an important stage of the process. There are very difficult issues that have to be worked through," he said on Wednesday, shortly after the announcement that the Clinton-Barak meeting would be in Lisbon instead of the original plan for talks in Germany in the afternoon.
Lockhart would not give details of Clinton's 20-minute conversation with Arafat.
'There are clear opportunities'
Instead, they said Clinton wants to get Barak's assessment of the region following Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon. White House officials are hoping Barak gets a political boost from Israelis that emboldens him to make an aggressive push in the Palestinian negotiations.
"The question is, how have the recent developments changed the environment," an administration official familiar with the issue told CNN. "It is our view that there are clear opportunities here but, as always, risks as well. And it is a chance to get a sense of where the prime minister wants to go next."
Clinton says stakes are higher
In a news conference on Wednesday, Clinton said Israel's pullout from Lebanon had imposed a greater sense of urgency on all parties.
Noting the Israelis and Palestinians had committed themselves to reaching a framework agreement soon, Clinton said it was imperative to make some progress.
"There are lots of things that need to be gone through that we need to go through if we're even going to reach the framework agreement," he said. "Because a lot of the toughest things have to be ... they'll have to come to grips with those just to reach the framework agreement."
Palestinian officials said on Wednesday Arafat was unhappy with ideas proposed by Israel in recent back-channel talks in Sweden, and that he had complained of Israeli intransigence.
"(Arafat) informed President Clinton about the current situation of the peace process, especially the current stalemate and the deadlock it has reached," Nabil Abu Rdaineh, a senior aide to Arafat, told Reuters in Jerusalem.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekaat said, "the only thing that will revive the process ... the only thing that may get the process back on track and may create openings is the personal intervention of President Clinton."
Israel and the Palestinians are tackling thorny issues such as the fate of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements on occupied land, borders and the future of around 4 million Palestinian refugees.
Differences still remain
Mideast peace negotiations, suspended by Israel after bloody Palestinian-Israeli clashes two weeks ago in the West Bank and Gaza, will be held Thursday in Israel and in Palestinian-run areas.
Haim Ramon, an Israeli Cabinet minister, said differences remained between the two sides on two main issues.
"The gaps are still wide on two central issues: territory that will be transferred to the Palestinians ... and the question of Jerusalem," Ramon said on Wednesday on Israel's Channel One TV station.
The Israelis and Palestinians face a September deadline for a so-called "final status" peace accord, but have not reached agreement on the framework they consider critical to setting the parameters of the negotiations on the most difficult final status issues, such as the status of Jerusalem and differences over water rights and refugee concerns.
Clinton-Barak meeting aims to revive peace process
Knesset - The Israeli Parliament
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