Mideast talks stop in wake of killings

Israel suspends negotiations after 2nd attack in week

Hopes for deal diminish

January 24, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israel suspended peace talks with the Palestinians last night after two Israeli men were killed during a visit to the West Bank in what appeared to be the second fatal attack on civilians in less than a week.

The talks, begun last weekend at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba, had marked a serious and almost desperate effort by the two sides to reach some sort of agreement before Israel's Feb. 6 elections, in which right-wing retired Gen. Ariel Sharon appears likely to topple Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Barak said yesterday that ministers involved in the talks were being withdrawn for "consultations," during which there would be "no contact of any kind at various levels." He vowed that Israel would track down the killers.

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh predicted the negotiations would resume shortly, but the suspension diminished chances that a deal could be reached in the less than two weeks remaining.

"We have to resume it," Sneh told Reuters. "There is no reason to stop it, especially now when there is a glimmer of hope, it is impossible that a few terrorists will derail the entire process."

The talks were the first high-level negotiations conducted in years without the guiding hand of the United States, which pulled back from direct involvement when President Bush was inaugurated.

The two sides are using the framework that former President Bill Clinton proposed before leaving office. It would give the Palestinians 95 percent of the West Bank and sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, but deny a right of return to several million Palestinian refugees.

Israelis and Palestinians had dispatched large delegations in an effort to draw on all the creativity they could muster to bridge wide gaps over Jerusalem and the refugees. They appeared to be closer to agreement on a division of territory and on security. In addition, Israelis are beginning to accept the idea of an international force being sent to the new border area once an agreement is reached.

And Barak has suggested that Israel and the Palestinians could find a way to share administration of Jerusalem's Old City and the shrines of Judaism, Islam and Christianity that remain the chief stumbling block in the talks.

Barak has drawn fierce criticism from Sharon's Likud Party for conducting the talks so close to elections. Yesterday, Likud officials accused the government of conducting a "fire sale" of Jewish holy sites.

Yesterday's killings, in the West Bank town of Tulkarm, came six days after a 16-year-old Israeli boy from Ashkelon was lured to Ramallah and shot to death by masked gunmen after he had become involved with a young Palestinian woman over the Internet.

According to Israel radio, yesterday's victims were two restaurateurs from Tel Aviv's Sheinkin Street, a trendy row of cafes and boutiques, faintly resembling New York's East Village, that caters to Israel's secular young generation.

A neighboring businessman from Sheinkin Street told the radio that the men had gone to the West Bank in search of large flower urns for their restaurant, called Yuppies. They were accompanied by an Israeli Arab.

Authorities said the three men were having dinner at a restaurant in Tulkarm when masked gunmen pulled them outside, let the Arab go and then shot Edgar Zeituny, who was in his mid-30s, and Mordechai Dayan, in his mid-20s. The Israeli Arab was identified as Fouad Mohamed.

Izz el-Din Al-Qassam, the military wing of the Islamic Hamas group opposed to the peace process, claimed responsibility for the killings. But a senior Israeli security official told the New York Times that Hamas "liked to take responsibility for all terrorist attacks against Israel" and that it was not clear who was behind the killings.

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