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Israelis say Barak pessimistic on peace prospects

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JERUSALEM — Israeli officials warned on Monday that negotiators at the Camp David peace summit were waging an uphill battle to resolve core Israeli-Palestinian disputes and that chances of success were slim.

Parliament speaker Avraham Burg said after a lengthy telephone conversation with Prime Minister Ehud Barak that the Israeli leader was downbeat about chances a deal would be struck at the summit with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

"(Barak) is not really optimistic," Burg said. "We have not reached the moment of truth, the moment of decision. It is more on the pessimistic side than the optimistic side."

Burg said Barak told him he thought more than two days were needed for the talks to start producing results, as most issues on the negotiating table were deadlocked.

According to Israeli media reports, U.S. President Bill Clinton has begun to twist Barak's and Arafat's arms to make concessions before Wednesday when Clinton is due to leave for the Group of Eight summit in Japan.

Burg said the sides "had never been so far apart" on issues at the heart of the conflict like the fate of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt in the 1967 Middle East war. Palestinians want to establish an independent state this year on these lands.

Clinton earlier broke a media blackout to tell a New York newspaper he was uncertain whether the summit would succeed, although "some progress" had been made.

The Camp David negotiations have been shrouded in so much secrecy that even Barak's advisers at a facility near the mountain retreat say they are in the dark about what's going on.

"We are still in the fog," one adviser, Yaniv Eldad, told Israel Radio.

"The success of the summit depends on whether both sides are willing to make painful and difficult decisions," Eldad said. "It is not certain there will be a breakthrough."

Israeli immigration minister Yuli Tamir, a peace activist before she joined Barak's cabinet, blamed the stalemate on Palestinian inflexibility.

"We have made suggestions to the Palestinians which have never been made before to try to reach a final agreement," Tamir said. "Ehud Barak has gone the extra mile."

"Now all the pressure is on Arafat. Arafat must understand that if he does not move towards Israel...if he continues to insist on the things that he insists upon, there will be no agreement," she said.

Thousands of Palestinians have taken to the streets since the summit began last week, calling on Arafat to remain firm on Palestinian demands such as having East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Barak too has faced formidable domestic opposition.

Around 150,000 Jewish settlers and right-wing Israelis packed into a central Tel Aviv square for a rally on Sunday night, saying the huge crowd was proof Barak had no domestic support for a peace deal with the Palestinians.

The head of the council for Jewish settlers, Shlomo Filberg, said he feared Barak had weakened Israel's hand by suggesting compromises on fundamental positions such as retaining Jerusalem as its "united and eternal" capital.