WASHINGTON — Israel's foreign minister says fighting with the Palestinians has escalated to the level of a "miniwar" and Israel will respond accordingly.

As conflict with the Palestinians claimed the lives of three Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, Shlomo Ben-Ami said the Palestinians no longer were engaged simply in an uprising of grievances against Israel.

"It's a war, or if you prefer, a miniwar," he said Wednesday after meeting for 90 minutes with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on the escalating violence. "We have to deal with it not as a civilian uprising but as a military confrontation," he said in Hebrew and then in English.

Israel, however, deferred any immediate retaliation for the soldiers' deaths after Cabinet minister Shimon Peres met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Gaza. Peres said after the meeting that he discussed implementation of understandings reached between the two sides at a summit Oct. 16-17 in Egypt.

In a statement issued by the White House on Wednesday night, President Clinton welcomed the development and said "I'm hopeful it will lead to implementation of the steps agreed to by both parties" at the summit.

Ben-Ami, asked earlier at a news conference outside the State Department whether Israel could set aside the attacks and return to the peace table, indicated that would be difficult. "Maybe we need some process of mutual healing," he said.

Still, the foreign minister said, "we have had crises in the past and emerged with solutions. This cannot be ruled out."

He said Israel wanted to "open channels" with the Palestinians and that he had discussed with Albright ways of creating conditions for a resumption of peace talks.

Ben-Ami then went to the White House and met for more than an hour with Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser.

He was due to be followed Friday by senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat as Albright tries to persuade the two sides to pull back from confrontation as they agreed to do at a summit in Egypt two weeks ago.

"It's critical that both parties move immediately to implement" the agreement to step back from confrontation they reached with Clinton at the Sharm el-Sheik summit, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

White House spokesman P.J. Crowley said Ben-Ami had reaffirmed during his meeting with Berger a desire to find a path back to the negotiating process. "We'll just have to see how and whether we're in a position to help," Crowley said.

American mediator Dennis B. Ross will meet in New York with Ben-Ami, who flew there Wednesday night for a speech Thursday to the Anti-Defamation League, a meeting with Israeli diplomats in the United States and a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak declared a time-out in negotiations last week as long as Palestinian rock-throwers and gunners kept targeting soldiers and settlements. On Tuesday, Arafat accused Israel of destroying the peace process.

"We continue to discuss and consider the prospect of meetings with both Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Barak," Crowley said. "Clearly, the president would like to meet with both leaders sometime in the near future, but nothing is set yet."

Albright said in a television appearance Monday that Arafat bore some responsibility for the fighting between Israel and Palestinians that has killed at least 160 people, most of them Palestinians, in the West Bank and Gaza since Palestinian rioting began Sept. 28. Some of his statements, she said, "are very difficult to swallow in terms of wanting to keep fighting."

"I hope that he will exercise more control," she said, "and I'm sure that he can and that we can get back to a peace process."


On the Net: State Department Middle East site: www.state.gov/www/regions/nea/index.html