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Taba Talks End Without Deal; No More Contacts Before Vote

January 29, 2001
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With elections for prime minister barely a week away, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak filled in his Cabinet on the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority on Saturday ended a week of negotiations at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba, with officials from the two sides saying they had “never been closer” to an accord.

Officials from both sides said they were confident an agreement could be reached if negotiations resumed after Israel’s Feb. 6 election for prime minister.

On Sunday, a day after the Taba talks ended, Barak briefed his Cabinet.

While he did not reveal extensive details, Barak said Palestinian negotiators for the first time agreed to the existence of Israeli settlements in any final peace accord.

Barak said Sunday the Palestinian team had been willing to let Israel keep clusters of West Bank land containing some 50 percent to 60 percent of the settler population, but Israel stood firm on keeping at least 80 percent of the settlers in place.

“My assessment from the outset had been that the Taba talks would not produce an agreement,” Barak told his ministers. “But we had to know how far we could get in negotiations before the elections. We are closer than ever to an agreement with the Palestinians.”

Barak confirmed that contacts were under way for him to meet in Stockholm this week with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

But later Sunday, Barak’s office issued a statement saying the premier would “not continue with diplomatic contacts with Arafat and his people until after the elections in Israel.”

The two sides will continue to maintain “security contacts for calming the situation on the ground,” the statement said.

On Sunday, Arafat and Israeli Cabinet minister Shimon Peres appeared on a panel at an important economic summit in Davos, Switzerland.

Arafat delivered a blistering condemnation of Israel to an audience that included U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Israel is waging “a savage and barbaric war as well as a blatant and fascist military aggression against our Palestinian people,” Arafat said, according to Reuters.

He also accused Israel of using weapons containing depleted uranium on the Palestinians, something the Israeli army has roundly denied.

Peres, whose opening comments were far more conciliatory, was taken aback by Arafat’s attack.

“Let’s walk the last piece of the road for peace and have it,” he implored Arafat. “Your children will be happy and our children will be happy.”

Arafat’s accusations contrasted sharply with the tone at a joint news conference summing up the six days of negotiations at Taba, at which the heads of the Israeli and Palestinian teams said the sides had held serious discussions but were unable to close the gaps before Israel’s elections.

Barak is trailing badly behind Likud Party chairman Ariel Sharon in pre- election polls.

Sharon has said that if he wins he would consider forming a national unity government. Barak, however, said he would not serve as defense minister under Sharon, and has no place in the far-right government he would expect Sharon to form.

Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Karia said the talks would continue after the elections, no matter who wins. But he stressed that the Palestinians would use “all means” to achieve their goals, the terminology Palestinian leaders often use to hint at violence without quite saying it.

The head of the Israeli team, Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, described the discussions as “fruitful” and said much progress was made in restoring mutual confidence eroded by the past four months of violence.

A joint communique issued by Israel and the Palestinians said the sides would seek to return to the “normal” security situation on the ground.

Despite the declarations, it was unclear just what the talks achieved.

Palestinian officials still spoke of broad gaps on key issues, including Jerusalem, security and refugees.

The joint declaration also was assailed by the Israeli opposition.

The Likud Party claimed the statement was intended to aid Barak’s electoral chances.

Sharon accused Barak of taking “steps that pose a danger to the State of Israel.”

Sharon said Sunday that Barak’s attempts to forge a peace accord had brought Israel neither peace nor security.

Instead, he said, “it brought us a state of fighting.”

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