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Summit pushing Clinton to limits

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THURMONT, Md. — In a break with the secrecy surrounding the Camp David summit, President Clinton says these peace talks are "the hardest thing I've ever seen" and that while he hopes for a deal, he does not know if one can be reached.

"God, it's hard," Clinton said in an interview published in Monday's New York Daily News. "It's like nothing I've ever dealt with. There's been some progress, but I can't say I know we'll succeed."

U.S. officials had imposed a strict news blackout on the substance of the talks, which began Tuesday at the presidential retreat in the mountains of western Maryland. The president's remarks were the first official assessment of the direction of the negotiations.

Heading into what could prove to be a decisive phase of the talks, Clinton met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his own negotiators on Sunday. There was no formal dinner, a departure from what had become a summit custom of communal evening meals.

Entering the summit's seventh day Monday, it was still uncertain whether the negotiators could clinch some form of agreement in time for Clinton's scheduled departure Wednesday for a summit of industrialized powers in Japan.

"I hope so," Clinton told the Daily News when asked whether he would leave as planned. "I'm going to do my best to finish here."

In the interview, he spoke in emotional terms of the difficulties faced by Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, both of whom face heavy domestic pressure to steer clear of concessions.

"What's really troubling is that they know if they make a peace agreement, half of their constituencies will have to be angry at them for a while," the president said. "They're trying. It's so hard. My heart goes out to them."

Palestinians, meanwhile, signaled willingness to stay on longer at Camp David if asked.

"If the American side decided to extend the period of the talks, then I don't think that we will reject it," said Hassan Abdel Rahman, the Washington envoy of Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. "We are here to reach an agreement, and things are now in the hands of our hosts, the Americans."

White House officials have said all along that Clinton's scheduled departure should not be considered a deadline, but they also have hoped for an agreement by then. They have refused to discuss what would happen if no real progress has been made at that point.

The principal points of dispute are well-defined: the boundaries of a future Palestinian state, security arrangements between Israel and the Palestinians, the fate of several million Palestinian refugees and — perhaps the central question — the status of Jerusalem, the ancient city claimed by both sides as their capital.

U.S. spokesmen have acknowledged the difficulty of the negotiations. It is "the intractability and difficulty of the issues that provides the impetus for the atmosphere to be tense at times," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters Sunday.

Barak, meanwhile, got a graphic reminder of the battle he will face pushing through any peace deal he makes at this summit. At least 100,000 protesters massed in a Tel Aviv square to demand that Barak refuse to make broad concessions to the Palestinians.

Many in the crowd were bused in from Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The prime minister has he could envision a peace accord under which about one-quarter of the 200,000 Jewish settlers would be uprooted.

On the summit sidelines, the depth of disagreement was illustrated in sparring on CNN by Colette Avital, a member of the Israeli parliament and a former diplomat, and the Palestinians' unofficial spokeswoman, lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi.

"There are still very serious gaps," said Ashrawi, adding that "I certainly would not hold my breath" about prospects for an agreement. She repeated Palestinian demands for a capital in east Jerusalem, the city's traditionally Arab sector.

Avital retorted: "She knows as well as I do that we cannot and will not divide Jerusalem."