Peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed in the Egyptian resort of Thursday after a two-day suspension, with an expanded meeting of all delegates, AFP reported.
The talks resumed shortly after the arrival of chief Israeli negotiator and Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami and newcomer to the talks Yossi Sarid, leader of the dovish Meretz party, said the agency.
Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and negotiator Gilad Sher arrived earlier after Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Barak's "peace cabinet" decided to resume talks with the Palestinians the resort.
The AFP also reported that the Palestinian and Israeli negotiators held talks Thursday with representatives of the Israeli Peace Now organization, who arrived in Taba by boat to support the peace negotiations which resumed Thursday afternoon.
Palestinian negotiators Saeb Erakat and Yasser Abed Rabbo and Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin walked down the wooden pier where the boat was moored and took turns on a mobile phone to talk to the "Peace now" militants.
One of the members of the pacifist organization thanked Erakat for the Palestinian delegation's initiatives, an AFP photographer reported.
Two other boats chartered by supporters of Likud leader Ariel Sharon arrived at the same time from the Israeli port of Eilat.
The agency did not mention if there was any action taken by the hawkish Israelis, or if a contact with the negotiators took place.
Barak broke off the talks Tuesday evening because of the killing of two Israelis in the West Bank.
David Baker, a spokesman for Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Barak said late Wednesday that the talks would resume immediately after the funerals of the two Israelis "and will last for several days," AFP quoted him as saying.
He said the talks would then be suspended ahead of the February 6 election for prime minister, he added.
Barak had pulled out of the talks Tuesday following the killings, calling his negotiators home for consultations and putting on hold any further contacts with the Palestinians.
Israeli public television had said the talks would be attended by all the members of the peace cabinet, according to Haaretz newspaper.
The announcement confirmed the optimism of Abed Rabbo, who said in Taba before the meeting even began that talks would resume on Thursday, AFP said.
Abed Rabbo said he thought the delay in the negotiations "was not helpful.
"I think it is linked to some differences in the Israeli leadership; it's a war among the Israelis themselves."
He said that up until Tuesday the negotiations had been "serious" ones and had been "promising."
He added: "We promised the public opinions from both sides that we might reach some fruitful results by the end of the week.”
Erekat said in Taba he hoped Israel would respect the terms of the peace process when it returns to the discussions, the agency added.
"We have waited for the Israelis and we wish to be able to resume negotiations and that they will respect the terms of reference of the peace process," he said.
The two sides are battling against time to forge a peace deal to end more than half a century of conflict against the backdrop of a four-month Palestinian revolt that has claimed the lives of more than 380 people.
Opinion polls put Barak far behind his challenger, hard-line Likud party leader Ariel Sharon, less than two weeks before the election, and reaching a peace accord is seen as his only hope of winning, according to Israeli press reports.
Barak stopped off in Israel's biggest Arab town of Nazareth on Wednesday to woo voters in the Arab Israeli community that which helped sweep him to his 1999 election victory, Haaretz reported.
But he is no longer assured of their support following the killing in October by Israeli police of 13 Arabs during protests in support of the Intifada.
Top Israeli ministers had called for Barak not to end the negotiations.
"To stop the talks would play into the hands of terrorists who not only want to kill Israelis but to nip in the bud all chances of peace," justice minister, Yossi Beilin, was quoted by The Jerusalem Post as saying.
Underlining the potential dangers of a Sharon government, Palestinian international cooperation minister, Nabil Shaath, attacked the Likud leader in an interview with Egyptian television, AFP said.
"He's like a bull in a china shop that goes in smashing everything," Shaath said.
But Sharon said he had already been contact by Palestinian representatives to discuss peace.
Sharon said he would negotiate with the Palestinians to reach "something similar to an end of belligerency" if he wins the election.
"Palestinians know me. For me, a yes is a yes, and a no is a no. It was always the basis of our relations," he said.
The US State Department said a halt in the violence must go hand in hand with any peace talks.
"The violence is horrible and tragic and needs to be stopped. At the same time, it's important for the parties to pursue peace," spokesman Richard Boucher said.
Even before the Taba talks were suspended, both sides had cast doubt on the prospects for an early deal, with the Palestinians speaking of deep gulfs on key issues including Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, borders and Palestinian refugees, according to AFP.
Barak said Tuesday that the Old City of occupied east Jerusalem should remain under Israeli sovereignty, with shared control of day-to-day life in the area that houses shrines sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims.
But Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak said the peace talks, which began on Sunday, had seen differences narrow between the two sides.
"The difficulties are certainly still numerous, but there are indications of a rapprochement in points of view on certain issues," Mubarak said, according to the text of a speech run by the official MENA news agency.
"The fact that all the issues that once were taboo are now on the table constitutes a new step," he was quoted by AFP as saying.
"But if violence intensifies, that should not affect the continuation of the negotiations and the efforts to reach an accord between the two parties," he added.
Meanwhile, The Jerusalem Post reported Thursday that the Israeli High Court of Justice rejected appeals seeking to prevent Prime Minister Barak from continuing with diplomatic negotiations on the eve of the election.
The judges decided, by a majority of 6-1, there is no legal basis for the appeals.
Chief Justice Aharon Barak, explaining the majority opinion, wrote that a prime minister who resigns should act with appropriate restraint for an outgoing government, but should still maintain continuity and stability, and find the balanced approach between restraint and action -- Albawaba.com
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