Truce may restart Israeli-Palestinian talks

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Bolstering optimism for the resumption of peace talks, a fragile Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire took effect Sunday even as it was breached by at least nine militant rockets.

The truce reflects recognition by the hobbled governments of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority (PA) that months of fighting sparked by an Israeli soldier's capture is eroding their public support, analysts say.

But whether the cease-fire will gain traction or go the way of previous failures may depend on its ability to spur a prisoner exchange and an agreement on a new Palestinian unity government that could lead to an end of the international boycott of the PA.

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On a visit to a Bedouin town in southern Israel, Mr. Olmert said Israel would demonstrate restraint and patience despite the early breach of the truce.

"Of course the cease-fire doesn't offer an answer to all of the issues on the agenda between us and the Palestinian Authority. I believe this understanding is very liable to contribute to the release of [the captured Israeli soldier] Gilad Shalit," he said, expressing hope the truce would also be extended to the West Bank. "All of these things are likely to lead to one thing: the opening of serious, genuine, direct negotiations between us and the Palestinian Authority, and between me" and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he said.

Having coaxed Palestinian militant groups in Gaza into a unilateral moratorium on rocket fire, attacks against Israeli military targets, and arms-smuggling activity, President Abbas then mediated a truce with Olmert in which the prime minister pledged to recall forces that had returned to Gaza less than year after a September 2005 withdrawal. Israel is also expected to halt assassinations on militants in Gaza.

Still, the rocket fire Sunday morning was a reminder of the spoiler role that independent Palestinian militias like Islamic Jihad can play as long as security branches of Abbas's Fatah Party and Hamas demur from weapons collections and law enforcement in Gaza.

Hamas spokesman Sheikh Yazeeb Khader said his party agreed to the truce because it wants progress on a "national unity government, the prisoners exchange, and relieving our people from the political and economic siege."

Since Corporal Shalit was captured in a June raid on an Israeli unit patrolling the Gaza border, Israeli offensives have left at least 375 Palestinians dead in Gaza – including 199 noncombatants, according to the Israeli human rights monitoring group Btselem. In the same period, two Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza.

The cease-fire comes after two Israelis were killed in the southern Israeli town of Sderot in the past two weeks, and as pressure mounted on Olmert's government to launch a massive offensive in Gaza reminiscent of the 2002 Defense Shield campaign in the West Bank.

The truce reflects an acknowledgment by Israeli leaders that in the absence of a guaranteed military solution to the Gaza rockets, the cease-fire is worth the political risk.

Olmert "has no choice. There is no military response to firing of Qassam rockets, just like there is no military response to firing of Katyusha rockets" from Lebanon, says Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew university. "This gets Sderot off the front pages."

Though Hamas has reasserted its militant credentials in the recent weeks of rocket attacks on Israel, the fighting has prevented it from any attempt at stabilizing Gaza while an international aid boycott against the Islamic militants has severely choked the Palestinian economy.

In addition to giving new momentum to talks to release Shalit, a calm in the violence would allow Hamas and the rival Fatah Party to complete talks on power sharing and meeting the international requirements for talks with Israel.

And for the first time this past weekend, Hamas's hard-line leadership in exile showed signs of moderation. Speaking at a Palestinian summit in Cairo, Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashaal said Hamas would allow six months for talks with Israel on establishing a state in the West Bank and Gaza.

While Mr. Mashaal threatened a new Palestinian uprising if the talks fail, observers say it could signal a willingness by Islamic militants to part with ideology that negates the idea of a peace agreement with Israel.

Hamas is "realizing the old views and old opinions haven't borne any fruits," says Bassem Ezbeidi, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University.

But Yossi Alpher, the editor of the Web journal bitterlemons.org, cautions that "You still have serious government weakness on both sides. It's very fragile at this point."

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