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Israeli-palestinian Talks Resume, but Some Wonder What They Mean

February 10, 2003
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After months of inactivity, the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic track is showing some faint signs of life.

According to reports published this week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met Feb. 5 in Jerusalem with Ahmed Karia, the speaker of the Palestinian legislative council, as part of efforts to renew high-level contacts between the two sides.

In addition, Dov Weisglass, who heads the Prime Minister’s Office, met last week with the Palestinian officials in charge of finance and interior affairs.

Some observers question the significance of the meetings, which were followed by continued violence.

During his meeting with Karia, Sharon offered the Palestinians a gradual cease-fire.

He proposed that the Palestinian Authority choose one or two cities for which it will assume full security responsibility. If the Palestinian Authority takes action to halt terrorist attacks, Israel will withdraw its troops from those areas and ease restrictions on the Palestinian population.

In the discussions, Sharon reiterated his refusal to negotiate with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Sharon also laid out three conditions for the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians: replacement of the Palestinian leadership; implementation of comprehensive reforms in the Palestinian Authority; and an end to terrorism.

Although Weisglass was expected to hold further meetings with Palestinian officials in the coming days, political observers were cautious to herald any real diplomatic movement just yet.

Instead, they suggested, there could be two factors behind the public disclosure of last week’s meetings: the looming showdown with Iraq and Sharon’s negotiations with Israeli political parties about creating the next government.

The Israeli daily Ma’ariv suggested that last week’s talks were held following pressure from the United States, which hopes signs of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track will help generate international support for its campaign against Iraq.

Last Friday, the U.S. State Department warned private citizens not to travel to Israel as tensions with Iraq mount. In an advisory, the United States also urged all but essential U.S. diplomats, along with their family members, to leave Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Although Arafat said over the weekend that he welcomed the renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks, one Palestinian official, Sufian Abu Zaide, accused Sharon of not being serious about making diplomatic progress with the Palestinians.

Instead, he said, Sharon is motivated by domestic political interests.

While sources close to Sharon say contacts with the Palestinians preceded Israel’s Jan. 28 elections, observers have suggested that Sharon is interested in demonstrating his willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians as part of efforts to convince Israel’s Labor Party to join a unity government.

On Sunday, President Moshe Katsav formally invited Sharon to form the next government. Under the law, Sharon has six weeks to form a new governing coalition.

At the ceremony, Sharon invited “all Zionist parties” to join a broad-based coalition.

He also called on Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna to join his government, saying if Mitzna carries through on his repeated refusals to do so it would be a “breach of public faith.”

Top Labor officials decided last week that the party should not enter a government led by Sharon.

On Sunday, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres said that unless Sharon changes his positions, the contacts with the Palestinians will not lead anywhere.

In another development, Mitzna is reportedly considering calling for new leadership elections in the party as early as May or June. Mitzna may submit the proposal at an upcoming meeting of the party’s Central Committee, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported.

Under the Labor Party constitution, elections for a new leader must be held within 14 months of losing an election. Sources close to Mitzna reportedly believe that the sooner primaries are held, the better his chances of defeating such potential rivals as former party chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, or legislators Matan Vilnai and Avraham Burg.

Meanwhile, violence continued on the ground.

On Sunday, three Palestinians were killed in a suicide car bombing outside an Israeli army post in southern Gaza. Two Israeli soldiers were lightly injured in the blast and two others were treated for shock.

The three Palestinians first opened fire on the position from their car, and then drove up to it and detonated the explosives.

In the West Bank on Sunday, Israeli troops arrested a Palestinian near Nablus who they said was planning to carry out a suicide attack.

In another incident, Israeli police found a suicide bomber’s belt with 33 pounds of explosives Feb. 6 in a mosque.

The belt was found after security forces arrested two members of Islamic Jihad who were on their way to carry out a suicide bombing in Israel.

Interrogation of the two terrorists and another Palestinian suspected of involvement in the planned attack revealed that the terrorists had entered Israel previously, with one of them wearing the explosive belt.

Because of tight security, however, the two hid the belt in the bathroom of a mosque in the Israeli Arab town of Taiba. They then returned to the West Bank, planning to pick up the explosives for an attack that may have been planned for last Friday, police said.

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