Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Secretary of State Madeleine Albright heads to Israel Monday for a two-day visit aimed at bringing Israel and the Palestinian Authority closer to signing a framework agreement on the difficult issues that divide them. The two sides are supposed to reach a permanent settlement later this year.
Albright's visit comes amid uncertainty over whether bilateral talks in the region and in Europe have yielded any fruit, and as each side accuses the other of slowing down the negotiations.
Barak halted talks last month after an Israeli toddler was seriously hurt in a firebomb attack in PA-controlled Jericho. The talks resumed last week, only to be suspended again over the weekend. They'll resume when Albright's trip is over.
After meeting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak last week in Lisbon, President Clinton announced that he was sending Albright to try to "narrow gaps" between Israel and the PA.
At his weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Barak characterized the talks as being in "regression." He accused the Palestinians of engaging in foot-dragging for both tactical and strategic reasons.
"They want to divert opinion from the scandalous events of May 15, when armed men belonging to the Palestinian police, its intelligence bodies and the Fatah youth organizations opened fire at IDF soldiers," Barak was quoted as saying in a statement from his office.
The incidents occurred during several days of riots, allegedly orchestrated by the PA.
Barak also accused the Palestinians of wanting to leapfrog the "framework" agreement stage.
The parties have twice passed deadlines for establishing a framework agreement, which - as far as Israel is concerned - is the crux of the entire negotiating process.
The PA wants to finalize a few remaining "interim" issues from previous agreements and then head straight for talks on final status issues, including Jerusalem, final borders and Palestinian refugees.
Barak said he had instructed his negotiating teams to steer clear of the subject of Jerusalem for now, although he acknowledged that the Palestinians were entitled by previous accords to raise the disputed city's future in discussions on the permanent settlement.
Reacting to Barak's stance, PA Chairman Yasser Arafat said in Ramallah Sunday that, irrespective of Israel's views on the matter, "Jerusalem is the single-most important element of these negotiations."
"Jerusalem will be the capital of the Palestinian state whether they like it or not. And if they don't, they can go and drink the Dead Sea," he said.
Arafat was speaking after meeting Sweden's Prime Minister Goran Persson, whose country hosted "back-channel" Israeli-PA talks last month.
Acknowledging that time is running out for the two sides to meet the September 13 deadline to wrap up a deal, Albright said in an interview with CNN's Late Edition that the U.S. would exert all its efforts toward helping them reach an agreement.
She would not say whether she thought it was a realistic goal.
"Chairman Arafat is saying that he will declare a state at that point," Albright said. "We need to work as hard as we can with the parties over the summer, because President Clinton has said both publicly and to Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat separately, privately, there's an opportunity here to move the process forward. And we're going to be working very hard."
Albright is due to meet with Foreign Minister David Levy on Monday afternoon, Barak on Monday evening, and Arafat on Tuesday morning.
Arafat is expected to meeting with President Clinton in Washington soon. The administration hopes these initiatives will lead to a three-way summit between Clinton, Arafat and Barak, at which a preliminary agreement will be signed.