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Mideast peace talks could resume on Thursday

Negotiators
People stand outside the restaraunt in Tel Aviv owned by two Israelis who were killed by Palestinians Tuesday in Tulkarem  

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Talks began Sunday

Turnaround swift

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TABA, Egypt (CNN) -- Israeli negotiators indicated on Wednesday that peace talks with the Palestinians would resume following the funerals of two Israelis killed on the West Bank.

Ehud Barak was to make a final decision about resuming the talks after a Wednesday evening session with his top ministers in Jerusalem. In addition to the killings, the ministers were expected to assess the security and political situation in the region as well as the status of the talks themselves.

The talks were put on hold after two Tel Aviv restaurateurs were killed in the West Bank on Tuesday, militating against reports of "significant progress" toward ending the five-decade conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.

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The funerals of Motti Dayan and Etgar Zeituni were to be held on Thursday, and talks were likely to resume after their completion.

The two Israelis were eating lunch with an Israeli Arab business associate in the Palestinian-controlled town of Tulkarem when they were seized and shot dead, an Israeli official said. Their bodies were dumped by the side of the road and the Israeli Arab was freed, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said.

Barak summoned his top negotiators back to Jerusalem to discuss the situation after the bodies were discovered, leaving the future of the talks uncertain.

Palestinian police were reportedly holding an unknown number of suspects in the killings, but there was no independent confirmation.

Talks began Sunday

Intensive talks began on Sunday night in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba as both sides tried to find a solution before Israelis vote for prime minister on February 6.

One of Israel's senior negotiators, Cabinet Minister Gilead Sher, returned on Wednesday to Eilat, across the Israeli border from Taba, on Wednesday. But the rest of the Israeli negotiating team, including Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, remained in Jerusalem.

The Palestinian negotiators remained in Taba when the Israelis returned to Jerusalem.

More than 400 people -- 343 Palestinians, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society, and 49 Israeli Jews and 13 Israeli Arabs, according to the Israel Defense Forces -- have been killed in a four-month-long spate of violence that began on September 28.

Turnaround swift

Just hours before Palestinian police found the bodies of the two Israelis, reports from Taba indicated "significant progress" on one of four core issues that have kept the Israelis and Palestinians from peace.

The turnaround in the progress of negotiations was swift. As the third day of talks began on Tuesday, sources on both sides told CNN there had been "positive developments" on the issue of how much West Bank land Israel would retain in a peace agreement.

The Israelis had reportedly scaled down a demand that they be allowed to keep 11 percent of the West Bank, lowering their position to 7 percent -- much closer to the 4 percent to 6 percent proposed by former U.S. President Bill Clinton in a series of bridging proposals issued before he left office.

The Palestinians reportedly had responded favorably and submitted counter-proposals.

But by the end of the day, the talks were on hold.

The Israeli government said it would "lay its hands on the lowly murderers and will punish them with all severity of the law."

The Palestinian Authority issued a statement denouncing the killings, with Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qorei adding: "We condemn the killing of all civilians."

But a senior Israeli military official told CNN that the Israel Defense Forces view the killings as further evidence that the Palestinian Authority was doing little to prevent the killing of Israeli civilians.

CNN Bureau Chief Mike Hanna, CNN correspondent Jerrold Kessel and Reuters contributed to this report.



RELATED STORIES:
Marathon talks for Mideast peace
January 21, 2001
Israel considers talks proposal as Clinton steps aside
January 20, 2001
Clinton addresses open letters to Israelis, Palestinians
January 19, 2001
Arafat says he's ready for marathon talks with Israel
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New U.S. administration will 'wait and see' on Mideast
January 18, 2001

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

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