The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had arrived in Washington in the morning, while the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, flew in the night before after breaking his journey for a meeting with the British prime minister, Tony Blair, in London.
After the first session, President Clinton went out into the White House rose garden, flanked by Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat, to say that the US negotiating team, led by the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, would do everything possible to make peace possible. "But in the end," he said, "it is up to the leaders standing with me."
The two leaders, and their negotiating teams, are due to spend the next four or five days at the secluded conference centre of Wye Plantation, in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, about 70 miles from Washington. The centre was chosen for its seclusion and high level of security.
The summit, which is the result of almost a year of on-off shuttling by American diplomats, including Ms Albright and Dennis Ross, has echoes of both the Camp David meeting hosted by President Jimmy Carter, 20 years ago, which achieved the first breakthrough in Middle East peace, and the meeting at Dayton, Ohio, at which the Bosnian peace process was inaugurated. The open timetable and isolated location have led to speculation that the US might use a technique similar to that used at Dayton: confining the two parties until they see no alternative but to reach agreement.
The atmosphere for the summit was soured three days in advance by the killing of an Israeli by a Palestinian gunman, but having forecast the unlikelihood of any agreement immediately afterwards, Mr Netanyahu appeared more hopeful on the eve of his journey to Washington.
The Israeli side has made known that it wants specific and written security guarantees from the Palestinian side before it is prepared to cede the 13 per cent of occupied territory that it is required to hand over under the Oslo agreement. The day before talks opened, Israel indicated that it would be open to a progressive deal that matched specific progress on security to specific troop withdrawals. Among US objectives at the summit is to preempt any unilateral declaration of statehood by the Palestinian leader. While Mr Arafat has not ruled out such a declaration, and appears to be holding it in reserve, the Israelis have made clear that it would precipitate the end of the peace process for years to come.
The appointment, only a week before the talks, of the noted hardliner Ariel Sharon as Israeli foreign minister, however, was seen paradoxically by both Palestinians and Americans as a sign that Israel was seriously interested in an agreement.
The hope on all sides is that the process begun at Oslo can be rescued, that the terms and timetable of that agreement can be updated, and that "final status" talks - on national borders and the hugely sensitive question of Jerusalem, can start on or near the scheduled end of May 1999.
t Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, suffered a shock to his system before departing for the summit, writes Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem. The cause of alarm was his four-year-old son Avner, who had disappeared from his kindergarten in Jerusalem.
The incident happened on Tuesday when Avner walked out unnoticed looking for his driver to take him home. The child had been wandering for 30 minutes when three youths noticed him and asked him his father's name. "Bibi [Mr Netanyahu's nickname]," the child replied. With the alarm now raised, the youths returned him safely.Reuse content