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Israelis speak warily of summit outcome

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JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is cautious about the chances of success as the Camp David peace summit enters a decisive stage, but a breakthrough is still possible, a senior Israeli official said on Tuesday.

Parliamentary speaker Avraham Burg told Reuters the outcome of the U.S.-brokered peace talks with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat hung in the balance, and a deal on the 52-year-old conflict was unlikely until the very last minute.

"Every thousand-mile trek ends with one step; eventually it has to stop somewhere. In Israel, usually the best solutions come at the last moment. With the Palestinian side they're coming sometimes even after the last moment," he said.

Burg said there was still hope of a breakthrough before U.S. President Bill Clinton leaves for Japan on Wednesday to attend a summit of the Group of Eight, which includes seven leading industrial nations and Russia, but progress might not be achieved so fast.

"Will it happen now before President Clinton goes to the G8 or will it happen during his absence? Or will it happen right after he comes back? Or will there be another summit? That's tactics, but it's possible to (have a) breakthrough," he said.

Burg last spoke to Barak by telephone on Monday afternoon, before the latest round of talks began at Camp David.

He gave no details about the substance of the talks, at which the sides are trying to work out a peace framework on the toughest issues of their conflict — borders, the status of Jerusalem, Jewish settlers and Palestinian refugees.

Israeli media, facing a news blackout at Camp David, also gave few details of the talks. Some sounded gloomy.

The Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper said it had become clear that the summit would end without a breakthrough and the Ma'ariv daily said the "general sense of pessimism is growing."

The Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam was non-committal. It said simply that the talks were approaching a critical stage without yielding any clear results.

Burg likened the situation to the lull before a storm.

"It's the moment of truth," he said. "Now everything is on the table, now they are touching the sacred issues ... Therefore it's impossible to predict now where the face of the storm is going."

He said Barak, whose government has been weakened by defections caused by fears in some quarters that he will give away too much at the peace talks, was "very cautious" but also determined and highly motivated.

"I would say it's the highest motivation I've ever seen in any Israeli leader to make such a risky breakthough in order to bring peace for the people of Israel and the Palestinians," he said.

He made clear he regarded the status of Jerusalem, a city holy to three faiths, as a key issue to resolve.

Palestinians want the east of Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in 1967 and annexed in a move not recognized internationally, as the capital of a state they plan to declare.

Burg said Israel was not about to give up sovereignty of Jerusalem and left open the possibility that any deal reached might leave the dispute over the city unresolved.