Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are entering a new phase and are expected to intensify over the next few days, according to US Middle East envoy Dennis Ross.
"What is very clear to me is that there is a readiness on each side to get down to business in a serious way," Ross told reporters in the Israeli resort town of Eilat, where he is officiating over Israeli-PA talks, which resumed on Sunday.
"We are in a new phase; it's a more intensive phase. It is a phase in which they are working here and I also will be leaving here to go and talk to the leaders," Ross said.
Ross said he expects the work over the next few days to be intensive, explaining that he would shuttle back and forth between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and their negotiating teams.
According to media reports, both sides were attempting to arrange a Barak-Arafat summit. Barak's office told CNSNews.com no such meeting had yet been arranged.
Ross, who arrived in the region on Tuesday evening, would not say exactly what negotiators were discussing.
He said the next six to eight weeks would be "potentially very decisive" - an indication that the sides do not expect to meet their May deadline for arriving at a "framework" agreement.
The idea is to agree on a "framework" for the last stage of Israeli-PA negotiations - talks on the remaining "final status" issues which are scheduled to be finalized as part of a negotiated settlement, due by September.
Asked whether the framework deadline would be met, Ross replied: "The purpose is to reach an agreement ... I would say that over the next six to eight weeks we are going to see that there is a potential and a need to make big decisions to reach a framework agreement."
Ross said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright may come at a later stage and that a three-way meeting between President Clinton, Barak and Arafat could also eventually take place.
Meanwhile, PA and Israeli negotiators appear to have switched positions regarding the extent of U.S. involvement in the talks.
"Any role the United States will carry out will be acceptable to both sides," chief Israeli negotiator Oded Eran was quoted as saying Tuesday.
But senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the PA wanted "the U.S. role to be confined to finding ways to implement United Nations resolutions which they took part in drafting."
Three weeks ago, Israel agreed to an increased U.S. role in talks after having previously opposed PA calls for deeper U.S. participation.
Erekat was referring to U.N. resolutions 242 and 338, which call on Israel to withdrawal its forces "from territories occupied in the recent  conflict."
The PA maintains that this requires Israel to withdraw from the entire disputed West Bank, in which they hope to declare an independent Palestinian state. The PA is currently in full or partial control of nearly 40 per cent of that territory, including all the major population centers.
But Israel says the resolution does not specify the territories it is expected to relinquish, neither does it say that Israel must pull out from all the territories it captured during the Six Day War.
The resolution also calls for the right of every state in the area "to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force."
Since its pre-1967 borders were not "secure," Israel maintains, it is not required to give up all the land that it captured from Jordan as a result of the war, believing a return to those borders would leave it vulnerable once again.
That position was backed up by the U.S. almost three decades ago.
Arthur Goldberg, U.S. ambassador to the UN in 1967 when resolution 242 was adopted, wrote in 1973 that the omission of the words "the" or "all" before the word "territories" in the resolution was not accidental.
He said that that omission, along with the inclusion of the "secure and recognized boundaries" phrase, by implication meant the "parties could make territorial adjustments in their peace settlement encompassing less than a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied territories, inasmuch as Israel's prior frontiers had proved to be notably insecure."
Barak has said he will keep control of Israeli settlements in the disputed areas, where more than 200,000 Israelis live.
The location of final borders between Israel and Palestinian self-rule areas is just one of the final status issues to be resolved before the September 13 deadline. The others include Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, refugees, water and the nature of a future Palestinian entity.
Earlier in the week, Eran caused outrage in Israel by saying that a Palestinian state would be "the outcome of negotiations." But Barak clarified the remark, saying the future status of the Palestinian entity would only be decided in negotiations.
Arafat has said that he will declare an independent Palestinian state by the end of the year, with or without Israeli agreement.