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Israelis, Palestinians make final push before Israeli election


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Would Sharon honor potential agreement?

Progress on core issues

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TABA, Egypt (CNN) -- Israelis and Palestinians returned to Taba, Egypt, for further negotiations on Saturday, hoping to reach a new milestone in the long and contentious search for peace between them.

Formal negotiations at Taba, a Red Sea resort, adjourned over the Jewish Sabbath, but informal talks continued Friday night and Saturday morning at Eilat, an Israeli town just across the border.

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Neither side held out much hope of reaching a comprehensive agreement before the talks adjourn for Israel's prime ministerial election, to be held on February 6. But both sides spoke positively about their current efforts.

"I believe these talks have been the most successful we have ever had with the Palestinians," Israeli delegate Yossi Sarid told CNN. "It's a total contrast to failure."

Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abd Rabbo said that he expects positive results from Saturday's sessions.

"When we meet each other for a long time, talk deeply ... we will be making progress," he said.

The negotiators hoped to conclude the current round of talks later on Saturday or Sunday morning -- but likely without an agreement. Still, CNN's Jerrold Kessel reported, talk around the negotiating venue indicated a "very probable" meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in the middle of next week.

Barak, who resigned in December, is caretaking the government until the February 6 election and continuing his efforts to bring peace to a region that has seen more than five decades of bitter conflict.

Would Sharon honor potential agreement?

Barak's challenger for the prime minister's post, hard-line, hawkish Likud party chairman Ariel Sharon -- who holds a commanding lead in the polls -- has said he would not honor any agreement worked out between Barak's negotiators and the Palestinians.

But delegates from both sides are hoping that they can make sufficient progress that Sharon, should he win, could not ignore what had come before.

"I am sure what can be achieved here will not be thrown in the air," Palestinian delegate Ahmed Qorei said.

For his part, Barak advanced his belief that negotiations would continue after the election.

"If there is an agreement, we will declare it," he said. "If not, we will issue a communiquŽ summarizing what we did in the last round of talks in Taba ... We will continue the negotiations immediately after the elections."

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said he thought an agreement was unlikely, but backed Barak's word on continuing the talks after the elections.

"It is not a breakdown in the negotiations," he said. "Both sides want the negotiations to continue, but a time frame is very difficult."

Progress on core issues

The parties reported progress on all four of the core issues on the table between them, although they have not reached a complete agreement on any one of them.

In past negotiations, both sides have held to hard-line positions on the four issues -- the future of Jerusalem, the status of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, the division of territory between them and security.

This week's intensive, last-ditch negotiations, however, have seen both the Israelis and the Palestinians show some willingness to compromise.

Hard-liners on both sides, however, oppose compromise, and a four-month-long spate of violence -- sometimes fueled by those hard-liners -- has overshadowed some of the talks.

More than 400 people have been killed since September 28. Of those, the Palestine Red Crescent Society reports 345 were Palestinians. Fifty others were Israeli Jews, according to the Israel Defense Forces, and 13 more were Israeli Arabs.

CNN Correspondent Jerrold Kessel 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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