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Albright to temporarily oversee summit

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THURMONT, Md. — After two days of shuttling back and forth between the Israelis and the Palestinians, President Clinton stepped back from the Mideast summit Thursday, temporarily turning over the reins to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Clinton left Camp David by helicopter after spending 48 hours at the presidential retreat, holding talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in a drive to reach a peace accord before a deadline two months away.

The president was honoring two previous commitments — an address to the NAACP in Baltimore and a medal ceremony in Washington.

The White House, meanwhile, adhered to its refusal to discuss the substance of the talks. Clinton's chief spokesman, Joe Lockhart, described Wednesday's meetings at the presidential retreat as "a busy day between all parties, a day of engagement."

In the absence of any claim of progress, Lockhart warned against drawing any conclusions as to whether gaps were being narrowed in the talks. "Nothing should be read one way or the other," he said.

Without elaborating, Lockhart said the two sides had been concentrating on "core issues." Those disputes — the most contentious ones separating the two sides — include the status of Jerusalem, claimed by both sides as their capital; the borders of any future Palestinian state; and the status of more than 2 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

In addition to a series of informal encounters among members of the three delegations, Wednesday's sessions included separate discussions by Clinton with Barak in the morning and Arafat in the late afternoon.

Arafat and Clinton talked as they strolled along a wooded pathway, according to Lockhart, who has repeatedly said that the rustic, informal atmosphere at the Catoctin Mountains retreat was proving conducive to talks.

"This was a substantive encounter," White House spokesman P.J. Crowley said of the Clinton-Arafat meeting.

The president then met with Palestinian negotiators.

All the delegations had dinner together, repeating what has become a custom of communal meals taken at three long wooden tables in a Camp David cabin.

Lockhart stressed he did not expect any loss of momentum due to Clinton's absence for part of Thursday, pointing out that Albright already had held talks with both leaders and presided at meetings of delegates from both sides.

Enforced togetherness, though, has been credited in the past with contributing to success. At the watershed Camp David summit of 1978, which paved the way for peace between Israel and Egypt, President Carter spent 13 days and nights at the retreat, demanding that other participants do the same.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, may seek to break the isolation from the outside world that has prevailed so far. Palestinian sources said Arafat wanted to hold a "leadership meeting" with Palestinian officials who were not part of his delegation and thus have not been allowed inside Camp David.

It was not clear whether such a gathering could take place at Camp David. Lockhart said he knew of no planned arrivals having been cleared by security. The State Department said prior to the talks, though, that it would be permissible to bring in outside experts as needed.

Arafat traveled to the United States with a large entourage, including some political opponents, in what was seen as an effort to broaden his base of support for any deal that is struck.

Despite pledges of secrecy all around, some purported details of the negotiations emerged.

In Israel, Cabinet minister Haim Ramon, a Barak confidant, said a proposed land swap — unpopulated land within Israel proper, in exchange for West Bank land on which large Jewish settlement blocs have been built — was on the table at Camp David. It was the first time an Israeli official had publicly acknowledged willingness in principle to consider such a deal.

Lockhart refused comment on Ramon's remarks.

In Israel, Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi, a former adviser to Arafat, said the two sides had agreed that Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip would be uprooted as part of a peace deal. Barak's media adviser, David Zisso, denied any such deal.

Asked about the report, Lockhart said, "As is our policy, we're not discussing the substance of the talks."