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Mideast negotiators want to continue talks after Israeli elections
'Closer than ever,' negotiators say as Taba talks end
TABA, Egypt (CNN) -- Israeli and Palestinian negotiators ended six days of talks on Saturday without an accord ending the conflict between them, but with hopes that they could complete their negotiations after next month's Israeli election.
Spokesmen for both sides said they had come close to reaching an agreement, and held out hope that what they had achieved would serve as the foundation for a future accord.
"We can say we have the basis for an agreement, which can be implemented and achieved after the elections in Israel," Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami told reporters at a news conference with Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qorei.
"We've never been so close to an agreement," he said.
Ben-Ami added that officials were working to bring Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat together for a summit "in the middle of the week."
Ben-Ami and Qorei agreed that the talks had gone far toward restoring trust between the two sides that had been lost during a deadly four-month spate of violence.
"Unfortunately, the period that separates us from today until the elections in Israel is short and won't allow us to finish the work we have started," Qorei said. "We hope we can resume after the election and finish the work we have started."
Barak trails hard-line challenger Ariel Sharon, leader of the conservative Likud party, polls leading up to the February 6 election. Observers have said that a peace agreement -- or at least evidence of significant progress toward an accord -- was the only way Barak could turn the election around.
Though U.S. President George Bush made what was described as another "introductory" phone call to Barak on Saturday, the White House is not issuing any comment about the Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Race against time
The process could also hinder Barak, if he is viewed as too eager to compromise with Arafat. Many Israelis hold Arafat responsible for the violence that began on September 28 and has so far cost more than 400 lives.
The Israelis and Palestinians launched this latest round of talks on Sunday in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba as time for a deal before the elections rapidly slipped away.
Formal negotiations at Taba adjourned over the Jewish Sabbath, but informal talks continued Friday night and Saturday morning at Eilat, an Israeli town just across the border.
The negotiators returned to Taba after sundown on Saturday and met briefly before issuing the joint statement.
Sharon has said he would not honor any agreement worked out between Barak's negotiators and the Palestinians.
Qorei addressed Sharon's statements, saying that the negotiations at Taba were between the official Israeli and Palestinian governing bodies and were "binding for both sides." Qorei also said he would welcome Sharon to the negotiating table should he win the election.
Ben-Ami, too, stressed that the talks had created a "platform" for the continuation of the peace efforts.
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.
Mideast talks sidestep impasse; more planned
Israeli Prime Minister's Office
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