JERUSALEM — Israel and the Palestinians early today entered a final make-or-break round of negotiations aimed at setting in motion land transfers, prisoner releases and other long-frozen steps called for in a U.S.-brokered peace plan.
The talks were expected to conclude in time for a ceremony Thursday in Alexandria, Egypt, with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak could take some of the pledged steps as early as today, his aides said.
Attempts to revive October's Wye Plantation accord continued even as the slaying of a Jewish couple inflamed anxieties over a key component of the accord: the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.
Citing the slayings, Israeli opposition politicians called for an end to the talks between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators. Barak expressed "deep shock" over the killings. But officials on both sides seemed determined not to let them derail the pursuit of peace.
Since taking office in July, Barak has sought ways to carry out the Wye agreement, which calls for Israel to withdraw its troops from 13% of the West Bank in exchange for Palestinian measures to combat terrorism. The deal was frozen by Barak's hard-line predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, after a little more than 2% of the land was ceded to Palestinian control.
Barak has attempted to change the terms of the accord by extending to next February the timetable for completing the troop pullback.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, by contrast, has insisted on swift fulfillment of the current agreement, which would have the troops out by the end of the year.
If the Palestinians do not agree to Barak's terms, the Israeli leader will implement the original Wye agreement unilaterally as early as today, his spokeswoman said. Orders would go out to the army to draft plans for troop movements, and 5% of the West Bank would be transferred to Palestinian control within four weeks. Transfer of a similar-size parcel would follow.
Barak also wants a commitment from Arafat to undertake the so-called final-status talks that will seek a permanent settlement for the most difficult outstanding issues--including the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees and the status of the contested holy city, Jerusalem.
Israeli officials believe that they have devised a package that is more attractive to the Palestinians than the original Wye agreement. Among other advantages, the new package would give the Palestinians almost immediately a safe-passage route between their territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, officials said.
Arafat spent several hours Tuesday in behind-the-scenes talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Alexandria. He departed without comment and traveled to the Netherlands. He is not expected home until tonight.
Albright, who leaves for the Middle East today, has indicated that she does not want to be drawn into the details of implementing the Wye agreement and instead hopes to propel the two sides toward a final-status settlement.
Despite progress between Israelis and Palestinians during 13 sessions in the last 2 1/2 weeks, one of the most contentious points continues to be the release of hundreds of prisoners. This week's slayings only underscored the raw emotions that the divisive issue evokes in Israel, where memories of political violence are fresh.
Israeli police said the bodies of Yehiel Shai Fuenfter, 26, and Sharon Steinmetz, 21, were discovered Monday in the Megiddo forest, a popular nature reserve bordering the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. Police said they suspected Palestinian militants but released few details. The bodies showed signs of violence inflicted probably by more than one killer, police said.
The victims were observant Jews, and Fuenfter wore a skullcap that would have clearly identified him as such.
Palestinians are demanding the release of about 650 prisoners in Israeli jails, most of whom were guerrillas or involved in anti-Israel attacks.
Under the Wye accord, Israel agreed to release 750 people. Netanyahu freed 250 last year, but angry Palestinians say all but 100 of those were common criminals. In the current talks, Israel reportedly is considering the release of 300 to 500 inmates.
But the families of Israelis killed in terrorist attacks oppose freedom for Palestinians who spilled Jewish blood, warning that the released prisoners will only repeat their crimes. This sentiment also was repeated Tuesday by leaders of the opposition Likud Party.
"We cannot let them get away with all [these] murders," veteran Likud legislator Reuven Rivlin told Israeli radio. "We cannot let them [have] the idea that every time they hit us, they will be released because of some agreement between the state of Israel and the Palestinian entity."
News of the two killings dominated local newspaper and television reports. Radio broadcast tearful testimonies phoned in by friends and family of the victims.
Israeli army officials said they were concerned about an uptick in shootings, stonings and attempted bombings in recent weeks, all seen as an effort to roil tensions.