THURMONT, Md. — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has approved a plan to share administrative control of Jerusalem's Palestinian neighborhoods, an Israeli Cabinet minister said Friday. The United States is trying to sell the offer to the Palestinians.
The fate of the Camp David summit could hinge on whether Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will accept the proposal or hold out for sovereignty over east Jerusalem, which would be the capital of a Palestinian state.
A member of Barak's Cabinet, Diaspora Affairs Minister Michael Melchior, told Israel Radio from Jerusalem that Israel could accept "a certain administrative autonomy solution" for Muslim quarters.
Barak had signaled even before the summit that some Arab areas outside Jerusalem could be joined to those within it, in exchange for Israel's absorbing some Jewish settlements.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, drawing on a kinship forged from frequent encounters with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, settled into her temporary role as lead mediator at the contentious summit.
Albright, who stepped in for President Clinton after he left for a weekend economic summit in Japan, met twice Thursday with both Arafat and Barak, a U.S. official said Thursday evening.
She arranged to meet Friday with her staff, and then meet separately either with the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams or with Barak and Arafat again.
At the summit in Okinawa, Japan, Clinton refused to characterize whether he was growing more optimistic about a Middle East settlement. "All I can tell you is that they are still talking and that consistent with our rules, I am still not talking," Clinton said Friday. "But I am hopeful."
Dalia Itzik, Minister of the environment and a member of the Israeli Cabinet, said Barak told her on the phone that negotiations were at a critical stage, but that an agreement was still possible. On Israel army radio, Itzik quoted Barak as saying: "The Palestinians were not prepared enough and did not make the breakthroughs I expected from them. I'm telling you, this is a real crisis. However, I'm staying here to try and bring about an agreement, and it is quite possible that will happen, even though the way is strewn with obstructions."
On the 10th day of talks at the secluded presidential retreat, American officials declined to discuss the substance of the negotiations, but said Albright's mandate was to propel the talks forward in Clinton's absence.
"She will try to close the gaps" between the two sides, her spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters. "It's clear that we want to use this period productively."
Despite uncounted hours of discussion among the delegations since the summit convened, the divisions remain deep. The two sides have not been able to come to terms over the boundaries of a Palestinian state, the fate of several million Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem, claimed by both sides as their capital.
Jerusalem, observers from all sides agree, is by far the most difficult question.
Israeli media reports suggest the Israelis believe it is up to Arafat to make some move in response to an offer of Palestinian civil control over some predominantly Arab areas. The Palestinians demand full sovereignty over the city's eastern sector.
All the region's old quarrels are intimately familiar to Albright, who has served repeatedly as a go-between for Barak and Arafat during frequent visits to the Middle East.
She enjoys friendly relations with both leaders; an official summit photo from earlier in the week showed her and Arafat holding hands and talking intently as they walked one of Camp David's wooded paths.
Although long days and nights of negotiations have been standard practice at the summit so far, Boucher dismissed any suggestion that the principals could be worn down into making concessions they would not have agreed to otherwise.
"We don't think any of these leaders is going to compromise on any issue that is not in the best interest of his people because he is tired," the spokesman said.
The weekend talks under Albright's stewardship promised a potential break from the high drama — some genuine, some perhaps contrived — that marked the past few days. Late Wednesday, the White House announced that the talks had ended in failure, only to declare them revived a short time later, just before Clinton boarded his plane.
Monday is likely to be Clinton's first day back at Camp David, but the precise schedule has not yet been worked out.
Richard N. Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, said the president's absence would not significantly affect the negotiations.
"People almost always exaggerate the importance of mediators," Haas said. "Ninety-nine percent of this is based on what Barak and Arafat are prepared to do. With no disrespect for Bill Clinton, he is the least important of the three central figures."
U.S. spokesmen have declined to say how long the renewed negotiations will last, but say it isn't open-ended.
"We've made it quite clear we don't think it's useful to go on for an unlimited amount of time," Boucher told reporters. The landmark Camp David summit of 1978, at which Israel and Egypt set out on the path to peace, lasted 13 days and nights.