Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat sent their top negotiators to Washington today after promising at their first meeting in two months to spare no effort to forge a peace deal.
U.S. State Department officials said the delegations led by Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel's acting foreign minister, would go to a secluded location in the Washington area to hold separate talks with U.S. officials.
"I would say that we are at the start of a very intensive effort -- to a certain extent a final one in this round -- in an attempt to reach a breakthrough in the negotiations with the Palestinians," Barak told members of his One Israel party.
He made the comment after meeting with Arafat at his private residence Monday.
It was the first time the two leaders have sat down together since the Camp David summit ended in July without an agreement. During the meeting, both men spoke by telephone with President Clinton.
Barak described the session with Arafat as warm and said it would help the sides in their drive for peace, now blocked by disagreements over the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
"It was a business meeting and not a meeting for negotiations -- an attempt to break the ice and tension after Camp David," said Nabil Abu Rdainah, an Arafat aide.
Officials from both sides say Washington is drawing up proposals to bridge the toughest issues at the heart of the conflict, such as the fate of Jerusalem, where sovereignty over holy sites is a sticking point.
Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally. It regards Jerusalem as its capital.
Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
Haim Ramon, an Israeli Cabinet minister, said if the United States failed to persuade the Palestinians to accept proposals that Clinton offered on Jerusalem at Camp David, then Israel would try to convince Arafat he should sign a partial accord.
Palestinians say they are deeply opposed to any delay over the fate of the holy city and a resolution must be included in any peace deal.