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Barak rules out imminent peace deal

TEL AVIV, Israel -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has ruled out the chances of securing a Mideast peace deal before Israelis go to the polls next month.

Barak was speaking to businessmen in Tel Aviv hours before negotiations with the Palestinians resumed today.

The talks, which started last Sunday but were suspended pending the funerals of two Israelis killed on Tuesday, are due to end on January 30 with Israel holding its prime ministerial election seven days later.

Barak is trailing in opinion polls to Ariel Sharon -- the hawkish leader of the Likud Party who rightwing Israelis believe will protect national interests but who Palestinians say could kill the peace process.

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Barak told his Tel Aviv audience: "I don't believe there will be an agreement by the elections."

His comments came as the peace process was further overshadowed by two more killings, this time of two Palestinians by Israeli troops.

Palestinian hospital sources said soldiers shot the two men dead overnight Wednesday in Gaza.

While confirming an incident had taken place, the Israeli army said only that its soldiers had opened fire and hit two Palestinians trying to penetrate a Jewish settlement.

However, the Palestinian Red Crescent humanitarian and medical organization said the two Palestinians were killed.

Meanwhile, Palestinian security forces have detained an unspecified number of people suspected of being involved in the killing of the two Israelis near Tulkarm, on Tuesday.

The Palestinian Authority issued a statement denouncing the killings of Moti Dayan and Etgar Zeituni.

Tulkarm governor Izz al-Deen al-Sharif told the Reuters news agency: "The security forces detained a number of people suspected of being connected with the killing of the two Israelis. The security forces started interrogating them."

The continuing violence underlined the difficulty negotiators face in reaching even a framework agreement before the Israeli election, which Barak is expected to lose to Ariel Sharon .

That said, glimmers of hope have emerged from the talks.

"I think there are still problems, particularly on Jerusalem and refugees. But I don't see this now as something that is impossible to solve," Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said.

"If we keep moving with the same energy and seriousness, and covering all of the areas, we should be able to reach an agreement."

However, Palestinians say Israel must recognize the right of return and compensate refugees who lost their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war at the birth of the Jewish state.

Israel rejects the idea of any wholesale Palestinian right of return.

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, part of the Israeli negotiating team, said such issues could not be laid to rest in the next two weeks but said it might be possible to create a track that could be renewed after the election.

More than 400 people -- 343 Palestinians, according to Red Crescent, and 49 Israeli Jews and 13 Israeli Arabs, according to the Israel Defense Forces -- have been killed in the violence since September 28 last year.

Reuters contributed to this report.



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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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