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Marathon talks for Mideast peace

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli and Palestinian leaders are due to begin marathon peace talks, as they count down to Israeli elections in just three weeks.

The peace efforts, expected to start on Sunday after four months of bitter violence, have taken centre stage in the election campaign.

Israel had delayed accepting the Palestinian offer to take part in 10 days of intense negotiations until after the funeral of a teenager killed in the West Bank.

But both Palestinians and Israelis have expressed concerns about what compromises will be agreed if a deal is to be struck.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is hoping to clinch a deal before the election on February 6.

Opinion polls show he is lagging behind opponent Ariel Sharon, the hard-line Likud party leader who has been sharply critical of the peace process.

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graphic Recent acts of violence in the Middle East:
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 •  Activist deaths
 
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Key issues: U.S., Israeli and Palestinian views
 
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graphic In-Depth: Israel Election 2001

 

And hundreds of Palestinian demonstrators rallied in the West Bank to insist that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to land in what is now Israel.

Palestinian officials say they will sit down in earnest to talk peace this week. Many observers say Barak's offers of concessions are more than the Palestinians will get under any other Israeli administration.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami will head the Israeli team in the 10 day round of marathon talks that will take place in the Egyptian resort town of Taba, which was once under Israeli control.

Taba -- a tiny parcel of land at the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, next to the Israeli border -- was captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Israel eventually withdrew from the town in 1989 after it was awarded to Egypt by international arbitrators.

In 1995, Taba hosted the negotiations that led to the second interim peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians.

The negotiations will be the first held under the new administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.

Barak's inner cabinet, meeting at Barak's home on Saturday night in the central settlement of Kochav Yair, gave the go-ahead for Sunday's talks.

Polls are giving Sharon a commanding lead in the election -- meaning Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat could face a whole new set of players in the search for Mideast peace within weeks.

Barak had delayed a decision on holding the talks to avoid conflict with the funeral of an Israeli teenager, whose bullet-riddled body was found near the West Bank town of Ramallah on Thursday.

The boy was killed apparently after travelling to the West Bank to meet a Palestinian girl with whom he had been corresponding on the Internet.

On Saturday, a woman was captured in the village of Bir-Nabala near the West Bank town of Ramallah in connection with the killing, the Israeli military command said.

Palestinian authorities have said they believe the murder had criminal rather than political motives.

The newest talks come after Bill Clinton -- in one of his last acts as U.S. president -- addressed open letters to Israelis and Palestinians, which urged them not to "draw the wrong lessons" from the recent round of violence.

"The violence does not demonstrate that the quest for peace has gone too far -- but that it has not gone far enough. And it points not to the failure of negotiations -- but to the futility of violence and force," Clinton wrote.

The Palestine Red Crescent Society says that 341 of the nearly 400 people who have been killed since the violence began on September 28 were Palestinians. The Israel Defence Forces report that 45 of the dead were Israeli Jews and 13 more Israeli Arabs.



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RELATED SITES:
Israeli Prime Minister's Office
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Palestinian National Authority
Palestine Red Crescent Society

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