Talks off again, on again


JERUSALEM, Jan. 24 (JTA) – The state of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks seems to vary by the hour, with reports of progress overtaken by word that talks have been suspended.

When the talks began Sunday at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak held no illusions about the likelihood of reaching an agreement, considering the distance separating the two sides on issues such as Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

Palestinian officials were equally pessimistic.

But by Tuesday, negotiators were describing the talks as some of the best that had been held in a long time.

That changed before the day ended.

Later Tuesday, Barak recalled his top negotiators from the talks after two Israelis were pulled from a restaurant in the West Bank city of Tulkarm and shot. Hamas claimed responsibility for the murders.

On Wednesday, Barak decided to resume the Taba talks the following day.

Before he made the decision, the Bush administration had pressed for a resumption of the talks. “We’ve been working with both sides to resume what we consider to be important and useful discussions,” U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday.

The talks had been expected to last about 10 days, meaning they would end just before Israel holds elections for prime minister on Feb. 6.

Both sides had expressed doubt it would be possible to conclude an agreement before the elections. Yet before the two bodies were found Tuesday, the sides described the discussions as “serious” and conducted in a good atmosphere.

“I am a realist. It would be very, very difficult,” Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, the chief Israeli negotiator, said Tuesday when asked about prospects for finalizing an agreement in the coming days.

“We cannot talk about substance because nothing of substance has been resolved yet,” Palestinian Authority official Nabil Sha’ath said.

Despite the skepticism, the talks were reportedly substantive, with the two sides reviewing maps and going into details on all the main issues.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz quoted an Israeli source as saying it was unlikely that the two teams could draft an agreement before the elections, but they nonetheless hoped to come up with guidelines that could serve as a basis for discussions following the election.

One member of the Palestinian team, Ahmed Karia, said separate committees had been formed to address Jerusalem, security, borders and Palestinian refugees, the toughest unresolved issues.

On Tuesday, there were reports that Israel had put forward a proposal to resolve the sovereignty issue over holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City, which has emerged as one of the main stumbling blocks to an agreement.

According to the reports, Israel had suggested that special arrangements be developed for the holy sites to ensure free access by members of all religions.

According to some reports, these arrangements would amount to shared Israeli-Palestinian sovereignty over all the sites, including the Western Wall and other Jewish sites.

Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, decried the move and said he was assured by a senior political source that no such proposal was put forward.

Israel’s Prime Minister Barak’s Office said in a statement that under any agreement, Jewish holy sites would remain under Israeli sovereignty.

In any event, Palestinians were unenthusiastic about the idea. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called it a “nonstarter.”

The Israeli team includes Ben-Ami, Barak aide Gilead Sher and Cabinet ministers Yossi Beilin and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.

Sha’ath, Erekat, legislative speaker Karia and Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo are leading the Palestinian team.

Tuesday’s West Bank slayings provided the latest setback to the diplomatic efforts.

According to initial reports, two Israeli restaurateurs had traveled to the West Bank city of Tulkarm with an Israeli Arab acquaintance to shop.

Palestinian sources said they had entered a restaurant when they were set upon by masked gunmen, who took the two Jews to an area outside the center of Tulkarm and shot them in the head, leaving their bodies by the side of the road.

The Israeli Arab was unharmed. Israeli security forces are investigating whether he was an accomplice to the murders.

During the ongoing violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel forbade its civilians from traveling to the territories.

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