Sharon renews Palestinian talks

Possible war against Iraq is spurring a new détente between Israel and the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has renewed contact with senior Palestinian leaders, an indication that the two sides might return to negotiations after months of letting guns and bombs do their talking.

The meetings, involving Mr. Sharon himself, follow efforts by the Palestinian Authority (PA) to reposition itself by trying to rein in militants, establish a ceasefire, and convey an interest in peace.

"Armed struggle does not benefit us," says Palestinian Interior Minister Hani al-Hassan, a key figure in the new talks. "We would like to coexist with Israel. We are ready to start a new era."

The rhetoric of détente is being driven by internal political pressures on both sides and a desire to prepare for the US war with Iraq, when many feel a new era will be foisted upon them.

"The region is going to be in profound trauma once the war begins," says Yossi Alpher, former head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "Until it's over, everything is conceivable and nothing is inevitable."

The threat of war casts a long shadow, particularly for the Palestinian Authority (PA), which has been undermined by systematic Israeli strikes against its physical, financial, and human infrastructure.

Palestinians fear that Israel will strike hard during the war, when world attention is elsewhere. "We are really worried about it," says Mr. Hassan, speaking in his office beside the Ramallah compound that once housed the PA's headquarters. Israeli army sieges have left the compound a wasteland of twisted metal rods and rubble.

That anxiety, coupled with shock at the crushing election defeat of Israel's political left, is pushing the PA to engage with Sharon. It is also conducting talks in Cairo to establish a cease-fire among all Palestinian factions.

The PA's intent is to signal to Israel and the US its seriousness about peace discussions as well as reassert its legitimacy. Its leadership is being challenged by the militant group Hamas.

The PA and its main Fatah faction are also facing challenges from other groups, including the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah. In an indication of how splintered the Palestinian movement has become, the Al-Aqsa Brigades in Nablus recently threatened Interior Minister Hassan, a Fatah member, for his condemnation of a suicide bombing by the group.

Hassan said the bombing was meant to derail the Cairo ceasefire talks. In posters that appeared throughout Nablus after his comments, the Al-Aqsa Brigades criticized Hassan's "contempt" and said their operations could "also reach [Hassan]."

"Hamas and other rejectionist groups pose a tremendous threat to the PA," says a foreign diplomat. "They are looking to undermine the PA, Arafat, and Oslo and they way they do that is looking to embarrass Arafat whenever they can, so that the Israelis bring him down."

Prime Minister Sharon is also factoring in domestic politics as he engages with the Palestinians. In the aftermath of his election victory, he is still trying to put together a coalition that includes the Labor Party.

Labor's leader, Amram Mitzna, has been adamant that this not take place. Analysts say the only way for Labor to ensure its political future is to preserve its political independence. Yet Sharon keeps pushing for a unity government. The inclusion of Labor in Sharon's previous coalition put a softer public face on his often harsh policies concerning the Palestinians.

Mr. Mitzna told voters he would begin immediate negotiations with the Palestinians if elected. By beginning talks himself, Sharon is signaling to Mitzna that he can be a peacemaker as well and that Mitzna should still consider coming into the unity government fold.

Sharon's efforts also serve his friends in Washington; he may be acting at their request. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a flash point that will only be aggravated if US troops storm Baghdad.

Even if nothing comes of the talks - and analysts like Mr. Alpher of the Jaffee Center are skeptical - they suggest new momentum in the long-moribund peace process, a development that may soothe regional anger.

And if the talks minimize the tit-for-tat violence, they will also lower the conflict's visibility at a sensitive time.

Israeli media reports revealed yesterday that contacts between the two sides began last week. Sharon met with Ahmed Qureia, head of the Palestinian Legislative Council, to set conditions for a return to diplomatic negotiations.

Sharon made future talks contingent on the removal of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom the Israeli Prime Minister has long loathed. He demanded that Mr. Arafat give up control of Palestinian finances and security, that Palestinians undertake political reform, appoint a prime minister and put an end to all "terrorism."

While Sharon restated that he would not negotiate with Arafat, who had pushed for talks, the Palestinian leader said he'd approved last week's meetings.

"We don't like Sharon, but after the Israelis elected him we can't say we won't deal with him," says Hassan, making a pointed contrast to the Israeli position on Arafat.

The push for talks coincides with PA efforts to establish a cease-fire with Hamas, among others. These talks, taking place in Cairo, have yet to yield an agreement. And even as the PA negotiates with Hamas, it is cracking down on the group at home.

The PA has recently tried to rein in Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip who have been launching missiles at Israel.

The PA announced the arrest of a Hamas cell allegedly planning a missile strike. The PA has also littered Gaza streets with a pamphlet calling for Palestinians to help put an end to these attacks. "Rocket fire harms everyone," the pamphlets read, likening the attacks to suicide bombs. "Israeli terror exploits these actions to harm Palestinians ... and the establishment of a Palestinian state."

The challenge to Hamas comes as it issues its own challenge. Mahmoud Zahar, a leader of the Hamas political wing, told the Associated Press Thursday that his group has the infrastructure to take over leadership from the Palestinian Authority "politically, financially, [and] socially."

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