Wednesday, January 24, 2001

JERUSALEM Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak recalled his negotiators from peace talks with a Palestinian delegation yesterday after Palestinian gunmen shot dead two Israelis in the West Bank.

The recall once again clouded prospects for a last-minute deal as the clock winds down on efforts to clinch an accord before Israel’s Feb. 6 election.

The two Israelis, who owned restaurants near Tel Aviv, were shopping for produce in the town of Tulkarm in the West Bank, where goods are typically cheaper than in Israel.

Several masked men pulled them at gunpoint from a Palestinian restaurant where they had stopped for lunch, took them to a nearby village and shot them in the head, execution style. Their bodies were dumped into a ditch.

The Islamic militant group Hamas, which opposes Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, claimed responsibility for the attack and said it had videotaped the killings. The group did not release a tape.

A statement from Mr. Barak’s office called the killings horrendous and pledged to apprehend the murderers and punish them with the full severity of the law.

The statement said Mr. Barak had summoned his ministers from the Egyptian resort town of Taba, where the talks were taking place, and that “no contacts with the Palestinians would be conducted for now.”

But Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh indicated that the talks would resume quickly.

He said the two sides could not let militants thwart the peace effort.

“We have to resume it. There is no reason to stop it, especially now when there is a glimmer of hope, it is impossible that a few terrorists … will derail the entire process, ” Mr. Sneh said.

Palestinian officials swiftly condemned the killings.

Similar violence has punctuated seven years of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but in the run-up to Israel’s election, yesterday’s attack had a particularly damaging effect.

Israelis and Palestinians in Taba had been negotiating in earnest for the first time since fighting erupted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in late September of last year. While both sides said gaps remained substantial, negotiators who had mainly traded invectives for the past four months now were poring over maps and hammering out compromises to some of the thorniest issues in the 52-year conflict.

With less than two weeks left until Israelis go to the polls, a comprehensive peace accord appeared out of the question.

But Israeli officials said before the murders that negotiators might begin drafting the outline of an agreement in the coming days.

Mr. Barak, who trails right-wing opposition leader Ariel Sharon in the polls, is hoping to get a lift from even a skeletal accord. Palestinians, who appear now to realize that Mr. Sharon would make a much tougher negotiating partner, looked more eager in Taba to do a deal than anytime since talks broke down at Camp David last July.

Mr. Sharon, a 72-year-old former general, says he will not be bound by an agreement Israel reaches with the Palestinians before the election.

“It is extremely difficult,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, referring to the Taba talks. “I see the chance as not especially high because of the time and because of the weight of the issues,” he told reporters yesterday before the attack in Tulkarm.

Other officials said the two sides had made progress on the amount of land Israel would hand over for a Palestinian state around 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza and had designated the area on a map for the first time.

The officials said Israel had proposed a shared administration in Jerusalem’s Old City, where both sides claim sovereignty of a shrine holy to Muslims and Jews.

Tulkarm, which borders Israel, had been fairly quiet during months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. But the Israeli assassination of a top Palestine Liberation Organization official there last month, Thabet Thabet, stirred anger and suspicion in the town.

Palestinian authorities arrested three residents of Tulkarm earlier yesterday on charges of collaborating with Israel’s Shabak security agency in the killing of Mr. Thabet.

Hamas said the Israelis it killed were Shabak agents, a charge that Israel denied and that appeared to be unsubstantiated.

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