Talks on hold after bodies of 2 Israelis found in West Bank
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has recalled top ministers from peace talks in Egypt for consultations after two Israelis were found dead in a Palestinian-controlled section of the West Bank on Tuesday.
The deaths occurred as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were reportedly making some progress toward ending the 52-year-old Mideast conflict.
Palestinian police officials said the two Israelis were apparently abducted and killed near the Palestinian town of Tulkarem, not far from the Israeli border, after coming there in the company of an Israeli Arab.
The bodies of the two were handed over to Israeli authorities, Israel Radio reported.
There was no immediate word on whether the killings were politically or criminally motivated.
Nearly 400 people have been killed in the latest round of Mideast violence, which began on September 28. According to the Palestine Red Crescent Society, 342 of the dead were Palestinians. The Israel Defense Forces say that at least 44 were Israeli Jews and 13 were Israeli Arabs.
'Significant progress' reported in talks
Israeli negotiators returned to Jerusalem on Tuesday to personally brief Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak after what sources described as "significant progress" on territorial issues in talks with the Palestinians.
On the third day of talks in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba, sources said that prospects existed for positive developments by the end of the week, although no one went so far as to say a breakthrough was in the offing.
The Israelis and Palestinians have been at loggerheads for months over four core issues -- Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, security and territory, including borders and settlements. On Tuesday, maps of the West Bank appeared to be emerging as the key to loosening the jam.
In a series of proposed bridging agreements, former U.S. President Bill Clinton suggested that Israel keep between 4 and 6 percent of the West Bank. But the Israelis said they wanted 11 percent.
But Israeli maps presented at the talks had scaled down the 11 percent to 7 percent in the context of a peace deal, the sources told CNN. The Palestinians provided counter maps.
Parties could start outline draft
No movement was reported on the other key issues -- particularly Jerusalem, including who will have control of contested holy sites in east Jerusalem, and the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to the lands they left since 1948, when Israel became an independent state.
Still, sources said that the progress reported was such that if it continues, the drafting of some parts of an outline agreement might begin.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said the negotiators had divided into four teams to discuss the key issues separating the two sides.
"We are having serious, in-depth negotiations," Erakat said. "Gaps still do exist on all issues. We are exerting maximum efforts, but at the end of the day, the gaps are still there."
In Jerusalem, Barak told Israeli high school students that he believed a joint administration of the holy sites in the Old City would provide access to all religious groups but would not affect Israel's sovereignty over the Western Wall, the Mount of Olives and the City of David.
"In order not to have a split and divided city and in order to have free access to everyone to the sacred places, we need to respect the right of the believers and we have to find a way that the practical day-to-day administration of the Old City will be shared administratively," Barak said.
On Israeli radio, Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami acknowledged "an especially great willingness and seriousness from the Palestinian side" in the talks.
Israeli election looms
The talks were being conducted under the deadline of Israeli elections on February 6.
Barak is trying to strike a deal that could reverse his sagging fortunes in the polls, where he is trailing hawkish Likud leader Ariel Sharon by 16 to 20 percent.
Sharon has said if he wins he will not honor any deal negotiated by Barak. But both Israeli and Palestinian observers have said that if a deal is struck, Sharon will have difficulties ignoring it.
"The next government can of course wiggle out of an agreement," Shlomo Avineri, a former Israeli Foreign Ministry director-general told Reuters news service, "but it will find it extremely difficult to do it."
Palestinian political analyst Ghassan al-Khatib was more pointed in his assessment.
"No Israeli government can ignore that," he told Reuters. "The other side will not accept anything less."
CNN Jerusalem Bureau Chief Mike Hanna, Correspondent Jerrold Kessel and Reuters contributed to this report.
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