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 start of the summit, now in its 11th day, 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.
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