Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday he and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had achieved a breakthrough on a long-elusive deal to turn over more West Bank territory.
The two Middle East leaders flew to Washington Monday to meet with President Clinton following talks that lasted late into Sunday night with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright."I think we're getting close to finalizing an agreement and it's time for the leaders to meet," Netanyahu said on NBC's "Today" show.
At the White House, presidential press secretary Mike McCurry said Clinton hoped the Oval Office meeting would produce agreement on a "time line" for moving the peace talks toward a conclusion.
"It is our hope that through the discussions they have had and the meeting with the president today we can lock in an approach that will lead to some conclusion in their discussions on an interim agreement and pave the way for the discussions ahead on final status," McCurry told reporters.
"I expect today only that they will make some commitments on the future course of this dialogue, with the goal of building on the momentum that they generated over the weekend," McCurry added. "We would be delighted if we could come to an agreement on a time line today."
The Oval Office meeting began at 11:09 a.m. and was scheduled to last about one hour. A small group of reporters was to be allowed into the room at the conclusion to ask a few questions.
Israeli diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was agreement that Israel would withdraw from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank - adding to the 27 percent already promised to the Palestinians.
Three percent would be turned into a nature preserve and kept under Israeli military control, with Israel and Palestinian construction prohibited.
"That's basically the concept we're trying to nail down here, and that's where we've made a breakthrough," Netanyahu said. He said he expected additional talks, "possibly in the near future, and yes, I would perk up your ears."
Israel's acceptance of a U.S. demand that it relinquish another 13 percent of the land it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War cleared a major hurdle to a West Bank agreement with the Palestinians.
The White House talks could determine the course of the Arab-Israeli conflict and, if successful, add to the politically troubled president's luster as a peacemaker.
Persuasive in steering Protestants and Catholics to an accord in Northern Ireland, Clinton hopes to use it as an example for Arabs and Israel in the Middle East and other adversaries around the world.
Albright called her meeting with Netanyahu and Arafat important, but declined to discuss the substance of what was discussed, saying only, "We still have a lot of work to do."