JERUSALEM, Jan. 15 (JTA) — Israeli and Palestinian officials are increasingly pessimistic that a significant breakthrough can be achieved in the peace process before President Clinton leaves office Jan. 20.
Peace efforts suffered a new setback Monday when Israel canceled a negotiating session following the slaying of a Jewish settler in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak called Sunday’s murder an “abominable crime” that dealt a “difficult blow to the peace process.”
President Moshe Katsav said the incident proved the Palestinians are not serious in their efforts to attain peace with Israel.
But even prior to the killing, officials from both sides said there was little chance of a breakthrough before Clinton leaves office.
“The negotiations between the sides are reaching a freezing point, certainly until after the Israeli elections” for prime minister on Feb. 6, a senior Israeli security source was quoted as saying this week.
The source doubted that the two sides would even conclude an outline of an agreement or draw up any kind of document in the near future.
Political sources in Jerusalem were quoted as saying the latest contacts were aimed primarily at preventing an escalation of violence and ensuring that dialogue continues after Clinton’s term ends.
For their part, Palestinian officials were not overly optimistic about the state of negotiations.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat described the latest talks as serious, but said they did not lead anywhere.
A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat said it is possible the two sides would reach understandings for the continuation of the peace process under the incoming Bush administration.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority launched high-level talks beginning Jan. 11 to try to narrow the gaps in their positions toward proposals Clinton recently made for a peace accord..
The talks included a meeting Saturday night between Israeli Cabinet member Shimon Peres, an architect of the 1993 Oslo accords, and
Generating the most heat are proposals under which Israel would cede most control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in exchange for Palestinian flexibility on their demand that millions of Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israel.
No breakthroughs were reported in any of the discussions.
Meanwhile, a last-ditch shuttle mission by U.S. envoy Dennis Ross, scheduled for last week, remained on hold.
Clinton delayed the trip, saying he first wanted to see progress toward lowering the level of violence in the region.
As a result of some progress in the talks between security officials from the two sides, Israel last week eased some restrictions on Palestinian areas. Included was the reopening of border crossings, permitting Palestinians to travel from the West Bank to Jordan and from Gaza to Egypt.
The confidence-building measures were part of a U.S. plan submitted last week by CIA Director George Tenet.
But the border crossings were closed again Sunday night, following the murder of Roni Tsalah, a 33-year-old resident of the Gush Katif settlement of Kfar Yam in southern Gaza.
Tsalah’s body was discovered in an orange grove near the settlement’s greenhouses early Monday morning.
An Israeli army commander said Tsalah was shot in the head, apparently with his own gun. His burned-out car was found in the Palestinian city of Khan Yunis.
A group affiliated with Arafat’s Fatah movement took credit for the killing.
To avenge Tsalah’s slaying, Jewish settlers set fire to Palestinian homes, fields and greenhouses.
According to friends, Tsalah was one of the last settlers who had continued to work with local Palestinians.
In another development, the Palestinian Authority executed two men over the weekend for allegedly helping Israel target senior Palestinian militants involved in attacks against Israelis.
The executions, by firing squad, prompted an international outcry.
Human rights groups in Israel and Palestinian Authority territory denounced the executions.
Palestinian officials defended the executions, saying they were a necessary measure in a situation of war.
There were reports Monday that the Palestinian Authority is now offering amnesty to those Palestinians who turn themselves in and make a full disclosure of their links with Israel.