Sharon Renews Palestinian Talks ; Possible War against Iraq Is Spurring a New Detente between Israel and the Palestinians

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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 detente 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. …