Thurmont, Md. The United States is promoting an Israeli-initiated proposal to recognize Palestinian administrative control over Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem in a bid to clear the most stubborn obstacle to a Camp David peace agreement.
An Israeli Cabinet officer said in Jerusalem that the proposal conveyed the "characteristic" of Palestinian sovereignty in the eastern area of the contested city -- a long-cherished Palestinian goal.
Reacting coolly to the ideas, Hassan Abdel Rahman, Washington representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said Friday: "Short of total Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem, there is not a ground for an agreement."
Rahman told The Associated Press by telephone he could not verify such a proposal had been put on the table at secluded Camp David, where the summit was in its 11th day.
President Clinton, attending an economic summit in Japan, trimmed his schedule so he could return to the Camp David talks by Sunday evening.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said the president was briefed on the status of the talks while en route to a meeting this morning with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, and "his intention is to get back to Camp David as soon as possible."
"They have continued their discussions, but there are some things the leaders have to do among themselves," Lockhart said. "I expect him to get right back to work when he gets there."
At the eight-nation economic summit, leaders applauded the efforts by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Clinton to forge a peace deal. They welcomed the "courageous" decision to continue negotiations and pledged to help the peace process.
Arafat is demanding sovereignty over East Jerusalem, the city's older area that Israel captured from Jordanian troops in the 1967 Mideast war. He envisions it as the capital of a Palestinian state.
Barak has vowed to keep Jerusalem a united city.
The United States has declined to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, although President Clinton promised that recognition in his campaign for the White House eight years ago.
Then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III told the Palestinians in 1991 that Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem was invalid, Rahman recalled, "and I have not heard the United States had changed its position."
Under the current plan, Palestinian areas outside the city also would be placed under Palestinian administrative control.
"These villages are not really ours," Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin told Israel army radio. "We must not allow this mirage to become an obstruction to Ehud Barak to arrive at the dream of peace with the Palestinians, now so close."
In Jerusalem, Michael Melchior, a member of Barak's Cabinet, said the plan would give the Palestinians some "symbols of sovereignty."
But Melchior, a Danish-born rabbi, later said through an aide that that characterization was his own and did not emerge from the talks at Camp David.
As the summit headed toward a Jewish Sabbath slowdown, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sat in for President Clinton. She had a buffet dinner Thursday night with Arafat and Barak but did not meet with either of them Friday. She kept up with negotiations being held on the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
"In our view, the parties are making serious efforts," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "Nonetheless, it is hard going."
Barak was host at a traditional Sabbath dinner Friday night and invited all delegates to share the meal. Kosher food was available for observant Israelis.
Barak and Arafat have had only one face-to-face meeting since the summit opened July 11.
In Cairo, meanwhile, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's senior adviser, Osama el-Baz. said he expects negotiations between Israel and Syria to resume in a few months.
"Syrian President Bashar Assad has shown sincere intention to continue the peace process, and this is an opportunity that should not be lost," el-Baz told reporters on returning from Syria.
U.S.-mediated negotiations in Shepherdstown, W.Va., broke down in January.
At the economic summit in Okinawa, Clinton declined to say 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, Israeli minister of the environment and a member of the cabinet, said Barak told her by phone that negotiations were at a critical stage, but that an agreement was still possible.
On the Net:
State Department Mideast Summit site: http://www.state.gov/www/regions/nea/cdavid--summit.html