Pessimism over new Middle-East agreement as talks begin


Hopes of a new Middle-East agreement resulting from talks between Israel and the Palestinians lowered today following expressions of pessimism for both sides. It had been hoped that an accord could arrived before the Israeli prime ministerial elections on February 6.

Further pessimism was created when advisers to Mr Ariel Sharon, the frontrunner in opinion polls two weeks before the nationwide vote, repeated their candidate's claim that he would not to be bound by any accord that was reached.

At the luxury hotel venue for the talks in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Taba, Israeli Foreign Minister Mr Shlomo Ben-Ami and Palestinian negotiator Mr Nabil Shaath said he a framework peace deal with maps and schedules was more likely than a full and final agreement.

While negotiators prepared for the ministerial-level talks, widely expected to last a week to 10 days, Israeli soldiers shot dead a 15-year-old Palestinian stone-thrower in the Gaza Strip.

The killing raised the death toll to at least 310 Palestinians, 45 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs in nearly four months of a Palestinian uprising.

In Arab East Jerusalem, an explosive blew up near an office of Israel's Interior Ministry, but no one was hurt, police said.

A deal with the Palestinians could boost Mr Barak's re-election chances by effectively turning the vote into a referendum for peace and sharpening the differences between the Labour Party leader and Mr Sharon's Likud Party.

But an agreement could hurt Mr Barak if voters thought he had made too many concessions at a time when opponents charge that, as head of a minority government, he has no mandate to forge a deal on issues at the heart of a decades-old conflict.