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
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
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
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