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Secrecy reigns at peace talks

Issues are tough, but mediators are persevering

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THURMONT, Md. — Entering a fourth day of Mideast negotiations at secluded Camp David, U.S. mediators expressed dogged determination to move the talks forward — and an equally fervent desire to maintain a veil of secrecy over the proceedings.

"The goal here . . . is to try to make these talks successful," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said after Secretary of State Madeleine Albright — sitting in Thursday for President Clinton — met with senior negotiators from both sides and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Clinton met with the U.S. negotiating team Friday morning to map out the day's agenda for the talks.

Having extracted pledges of silence from summit participants, U.S. officials repeated what has become their Camp David mantra: The less said about how things are going, the better.

"We are not trying to characterize optimism or pessimism at any given moment," Boucher said.

But on the sidelines of the talks, non-negotiators spoke freely, with the Palestinians' unofficial spokeswoman expressing pessimism as to whether any headway could be made.

"These are not easy issues," said Hanan Ashrawi, referring to the so-called core disputes — the status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital; the fate of more than 2 million Palestinian refugees displaced by creation of the state of Israel; and the boundaries of any future Palestinian state.

"In terms of addressing Jerusalem and refugees and the boundaries, they still have not been resolved," Ashrawi said. "I doubt they will be successful in this time period."

Participants are working against a Sept. 13 deadline for signing an accord. The Palestinians have said they would declare statehood that day, treaty or no treaty.

Whether or not the negotiators were making progress, hard-liners on both sides were vocal in their demands that there be no compromise, especially on the explosive question of Jerusalem.

"Jerusalem has never been a Palestinian capital — it has always been a Jewish capital," said conservative Israeli parliamentarian Limor Livnat, who came to the Camp David area to speak out against giving the Palestinians a foothold in the disputed city. "We won't build another Berlin Wall within Jerusalem — this is something Israel will not accept."

Back in Jerusalem, the chief Muslim cleric at the Al-Aqsa mosque in the walled Old City mounted a fiery defense of Palestinian claims to the city at Friday's noon prayers, the most important of the Muslim week.

"Everyone should know that Jerusalem is a Palestinian city, the heart of Palestine!" the imam, Mohammed a-Jamal, told worshippers.

How long the peace talks might go on is still an open question. The White House has said it does not want to impose any "artificial deadline" on the length of the summit, but Clinton is scheduled to leave Wednesday for a meeting in Japan of industrialized nations.

Diplomatic sources indicated the talks so far had been intensive and serious, but had not produced a breakthrough on any of the core issues.

U.S. spokesmen have said nothing about the substance of negotiations, alluding only to the fact that the two sides were "grappling" and "struggling" to resolve extremely difficult disputes.

Clinton was away from Camp David for about eight hours Thursday, handing off the role of lead mediator to Albright. Asked why the secretary met with Barak but not Arafat, Boucher said only that U.S. mediators were doing what they thought best to move the talks forward.

Palestinian sources, meanwhile, said Albright would travel to nearby Emmitsburg later Friday to talk with three senior Palestine Liberation Organization officials who have been seeking a meeting with Arafat.

U.S. officials have worked hard to limit contact between those at Camp David — the leaders and their negotiating teams — and the outside world, not wanting information about the talks to leak out.

During his break from the talks, Clinton attended a White House signing ceremony for a U.S. trade agreement with Vietnam, where he expressed hopes that old enmities could be put aside in the Middle East as well.

"Former adversaries can come together to find common ground in a way that benefits all their people, to let go of the past and embrace the future, to forgive and to reconcile," he said before flying back to the presidential retreat for a group dinner and to spend the night.

Over the weekend, the pace of talks may be affected by the Jewish Sabbath, beginning at sundown Friday and ending at sundown Saturday, and the Muslim holy day, Friday.

"We are aware of the religious obligations of the parties as they make them known to us, and we will make sure that the plan of activities takes those into account," Boucher said, without elaborating.