'Tense' Talks Split into Small Groups No Progress Noted as Secretive Veil Remains

Article excerpt

THURMONT, Md. -- With the Clinton administration describing the mood at Camp David as "tense," Israeli and Palestinian negotiators split into subcommittees yesterday as they struggled to resolve the specific issues standing in the way of a peace agreement.

White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart's disclosure that the negotiators were meeting in small groups was the first firm indication that the talks have progressed beyond generalities.

Nevertheless, Lockhart's assessment of the atmosphere was the most downbeat that any U.S. spokesman has offered yet.

"These are intractable issues," Lockhart said. "These are issues that go to the vital interests of both of the parties, so this is very serious. At times, discussions are tense, but that should be no surprise to anyone."

However, there was no hint that the talks might break down. Lockhart said there will be no formal meetings today because of the Jewish Sabbath. However, he said there could be "informal discussions" among the delegations during the religious break. The talks will resume in earnest tomorrow.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat have held only two formal face-to-face meetings since the talks began Tuesday. Most of the summit so far has resembled shuttle diplomacy. Yesterday Clinton met alone on the terrace of his cabin with Barak, then walked to Arafat's lodging for talks with the Palestinian leader.

Barak and Arafat, accompanied by their top aides, met without U. …