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Barak Accepts Palestinian Offer of Marathon Peace Talks

January 21, 2001|From Associated Press

JERUSALEM — Caretaker Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Saturday accepted Palestinian proposals for marathon peace talks in Egypt--a dramatic eleventh-hour effort with Israel's elections less than three weeks away and the hawkish opposition far ahead in the polls.

Meeting late Saturday, Barak's "Peace Cabinet"--senior ministers involved in the peace effort--agreed to attend up to 10 days of intensive talks due to start late today at the Red Sea resort of Taba, government officials said.

Barak, who badly trails hawkish challenger Ariel Sharon, needs a deal with Palestinians to boost his chances in Israel's Feb. 6 elections. In recent days, Barak has put on a pessimistic front and had postponed a decision on the Palestinian offer over the killing of a Jewish teenager in the West Bank.

Early Saturday, elite Israeli soldiers posing as Arabs captured a Palestinian woman suspected of luring the Israeli youth to his death through an exchange of e-mail, officials said.

Israeli news reports identified the suspect as Mona Najar, 25, who worked as a freelance journalist and carried an Israeli identity card. She reportedly was seized before dawn at her parents' home in the West Bank village of Bir Nabala.

She is suspected of being involved in the Internet exchange that led to the death of Ofir Rahum, 16, from the coastal town of Ashkelon. According to friends, she told Ofir that she was an American tourist living in Jerusalem.

Peace contacts, including telephone conversations between Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, have been continuing behind the scenes in recent days, according to Israeli reports and Palestinian officials.

The talks focus on then-President Clinton's peace proposals, which call for a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip, 95% of the West Bank and some areas of Jerusalem. Israel and the Palestinians have accepted Clinton's plan in principle but have voiced significant reservations.

Barak has been reluctant to give Palestinians full control over the Arab districts in Jerusalem and has said in election ads that Israel would not transfer control of a key Jerusalem holy site to the Palestinians.

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