JERUSALEM - Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres met in Gaza late last night to try to lock up a peace agreement before eight years of intensive mediation by President Clinton end in a week.
The final push before Clinton leaves office comes after 3 1/2 months of the worst bloodshed between Israel and the Palestinians in decades that has claimed more than 350 lives - mostly Palestinian - and raised fears of a broader conflict.
No breakthrough was achieved last night. "It was a businesslike meeting. We had an in-depth discussion," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said afterward, but added, "I would not say it produced anything."
The talks are expected to continue today or tomorrow.
"We discussed how to continue the negotiations, how to further reduce the violence and how to prevent damage to the chances of attaining peace," Peres said through a spokesman.
The two sides met for three hours, including dinner, with Arafat and Peres meeting together for an hour, Israel Radio reported.
Neither side expects a detailed agreement to be reached before Clinton leaves office Saturday. What kind of substitute could be achieved is unclear because Palestinians are wary of signing a vague "declaration" that would require long negotiations over specific terms and delays in carrying out the deal.
But if they could agree to use the latest Clinton plan as a basis, this would ensure that the plan would survive beyond Clinton's departure and that negotiations could continue in the three weeks before the crucial prime ministerial election in Israel on Feb. 6.
According to the Israeli prime minister's office, the sides are attempting to reach a "positive understanding of the diplomatic contacts of Clinton's era."
Without such an understanding, the Bush administration might be inclined to view the Clinton effort as a failure and spend months trying to figure out a new approach while the conflict continues unchecked.
The Clinton plan has parts that are deeply unpopular among Israelis and Palestinians. It would give all the Gaza Strip and 95 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians, forcing the evacuation of thousands of Jewish settlers, and give Palestinians control over Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, effectively dividing the holy city.
It would also grant Palestinians sovereignty over the mosques atop the Noble Sanctuary, sacred to Jews as the Temple Mount, while giving Israel sovereignty over the Western Wall and adjoining Jewish Quarter.
On the issue of refugees, several million Palestinians, who fled or were forced out during the 1948 Mideast war, would not be allowed to return to their original homes in Israel.
Even if an understanding is reached soon, it could be imperiled by the Israeli elections. Opinion polls give right-wing challenger Ariel Sharon a sizeable lead over Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Sharon has said he would negotiate on a new basis, maintaining settlements, keeping Jerusalem undivided and granting Palestinians little more than the territory that they have received.
Last night's talks in Gaza City marked the highest-level meeting between the two sides since November, when Arafat and Peres worked out a cease-fire that never took hold.
Recent days have seen a reduction in the level of fighting in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a result of efforts brokered by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to restore security cooperation between the two sides that had collapsed after the uprising started.
Palestinian gunfire on Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers has diminished, and Israel has eased barriers against the movement of Palestinian people and goods.
But Arafat's Palestinian National Authority staged a chilling reminder that the bitter conflict continues. Yesterday, its firing squads executed two men convicted in military courts of collaborating with Israeli authorities.
The two men were convicted of providing in- formation that allowed Israeli security forces to find and assassinate key leaders of the rebellion or people suspected of planning acts of terror against Israelis.
"This is a clear message to anyone thinking of betrayal of his people and his homeland," Palestinian Justice Minister Freih Abu-Maddien said afterward. "We will not forgive anyone like these."
After speedy trials, Palestinian courts in Gaza City and the West Bank town of Nablus convicted Majdi Makawi, 28, and Alam Bani Odeh, 25, on Friday of involvement in separate attacks that killed Jamal Abdel Razek, a leader of Arafat's Fatah movement, and Palestinian bomb-maker Ibrahim Bani Odeh. Arafat upheld the courts' execution orders.
Yesterday morning, Palestinian officials tied Makawi to a stake in a courtyard at police headquarters in Gaza City, blindfolded him, and put nine police officers before him with a mix of live and blank ammunition in their Kalashnikov automatic rifles.
A six-member police firing squad executed Bani Odeh in a square in the middle of Nablus, with 2,000 people gathered in the square and outside. The women of the condemned men's family were taken out of sight before the execution.
Two Palestinian human rights groups condemned the death sentences and the closed system of justice that led to them.
While saying collaborators must face "legal procedures," the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza said it rejects the death penalty and "rejects the work of the Palestinian State Security Court for its lack of standards that must be provided for fair trials."
LAW, the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, also opposes the death penalty and said the State Security Court "provides no right of appeal and thus operates in contravention of international fair trial standards."
Suspected collaborators should be tried "according to internationally recognized fair trial standards," the group said.