Peace talks limp forward

JERUSALEM, Jan. 17 (JTA) – For all their differences, Israeli and Palestinian officials are agreeing on one thing – that it is unlikely they will achieve any breakthroughs before Israeli elections are held next month.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s spokesman all but ruled out the possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord before Israel holds elections for prime minister on Feb. 6.

Palestinian officials were soon echoing this assessment.

Barak’s chances of victory in the election are widely considered minimal without such an agreement.

In an effort to put an end to nearly four months of violence, Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat held talks in Cairo.

Wednesday night’s session was arranged during a meeting earlier in the day between Ben-Ami and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, Israeli officials said.

In one small sign of progress, Israel on Wednesday eased the closure it imposed on the Gaza Strip.

The decision to relax the closure – which was imposed after a settler was found murdered earlier this week – came after Israeli and Palestinian officials held talks on security cooperation Tuesday night.

Separate high-level peace negotiations held Tuesday remained deadlocked over such issues as the future of Jerusalem and millions of Palestinian refugees.

More talks were slated for this week, but with the two sides saying that a full agreement is out of reach, it is not clear what goals they are setting for themselves.

Palestinian negotiators have ruled out a partial accord or an outline of principles for further talks.

Peace efforts suffered a 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.

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 President Clinton’s term ends.

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 Arafat.

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.

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 responsibility 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 them, saying they were a necessary measure in a situation of war.

Following the outcry, Palestinian Justice Minister Freih Abu Medein announced that the Palestinian Authority was offering amnesty to those Palestinians who turn themselves in within 45 days and make a full disclosure of their links with Israel.

On Tuesday, he said seven Palestinians had turned themselves in under the amnesty program.

Hamas, meanwhile, threatened to strike with an “iron fist” at Palestinians suspected of assisting Israel.

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