- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 8, 2003

TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 8 (UPI) — Top Israeli and Palestinian officials have been meeting secretly in an attempt to work out a ceasefire that would entail an Israeli pullback and an easing of travel restrictions on Palestinians, well placed officials said Saturday.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took part in some of those meetings, Israeli and Palestinian sources said.

The director of the prime minister's Bureau, Dov Weissglas, Saturday told Israel Radio the talks have been going on for months, continued under extra care during the recent election campaign, and picked up after Sharon won the elections.

A well-informed source that spoke to United Press International on condition of anonymity said the meetings were held with the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Ahmad Qurei, better known as Abu Ala, and with the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee secretary, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. Abu Mazen was moot as a possible future Palestinian prime minister.

Qurei had telephoned Sharon with congratulations for his election victory late last month, a high-ranking Palestinian official who asked not to be identified told United Press International. Qurei himself declined comment.

Weissglas met also the Palestinian interior minister, Hani al-Hassan, who is responsible for security. The latter meeting was held at the home of U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, in Herzliya north of Tel Aviv.

Another Israeli-Palestinian meeting is expected in the coming week.

Weissglas said the goal is to get the Palestinians to act "decisively and energetically to cease terror."

Wherever the Palestinians will demonstrate "a real and genuine effort to prevent terror," Israel will either redeploy its troops or ease travel restrictions, he said.

That would create a "positive cycle of improving economic and humanitarian conditions" for the people not engaged in fighting, Weissglas added.

This seems to be a cautious return to the "Gaza-Bethlehem First" plan of last year under which Israel gradually withdrew from occupied West Bank towns, expecting the Palestinians to restore order. The arrangements held for a time, but Palestinian attacks resumed and now Israeli troops are back in all West Bank cities except Jericho.

Weissglas told UPI the new plan would be "more concrete" and entail smaller areas, thereby increasing the chances it would succeed.

Palestinian security men in the Gaza Strip have recently moved to prevent mortar and rocket attacks into Israel, but their security system in the West Bank was badly hit during the intifada, or uprising.

Weissglas said there would be a carefully "supervised and monitored attempt" to help the Palestinians rebuild their security apparatus.

In the past Israel let Palestinian security men enter areas it was about to vacate to ensure quiet there, and it seemed ready to do so again. Israel might allow movement of Palestinian security men whom it would verify have not been involved in terror, Weissglas maintained.

The Israelis have been trying to keep a tight grip on Palestinian towns and maintained that presence and effective intelligence gathering has led to the drop in suicide and car bombing attacks.

On Saturday, for example, the West Bank towns of Nablus and Tul Karem were under a continuous curfew. The curfews in Bethlehem and Hebron were lifted for a few hours to allow people to buy supplies.

However the longer the soldiers stay in those towns, the more they are exposed to carefully planned guerrilla attacks. On Feb. 5, a paratroop officer and a non-commissioned officer were killed in an attack on a house near Nablus that apparently used to be a discotheque and where soldiers were positioned. The two attackers were also killed.

Weissglas seemed skeptical of the prospects for an agreement. "We've had many disappointments. This time, too, expectations are low," he said.

A well-placed Western source, who spoke on condition he not be identified, concurred. "I am skeptical," he said.

It was not immediately clear why the Israelis decided to reveal the talks, first in a leak to TV and then in a lengthy interview to Israel Radio.

Some observers believed Sharon wanted to demonstrate he is trying to reach a peaceful settlement and persuade the dovish-led Labor Party to join the government he is trying to form. Labor has turned down his invitation maintaining he wasn't really trying to reach an agreement.

Labor's Secretary-General Ophir Pines reacted sarcastically. "I welcome the meeting and the prime minister's realization he must adopt our policies," Pines said. There was no sign Labor was changing its mind about joining a Sharon-led government. Labor's leaders have said they would back Sharon's positive steps from the opposition benches.

Sharon's move might also be designed to demonstrate to the world that he is trying to strike a deal. The Americans and the Europeans are seeking progress in implementing the roadmap for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Authority Cabinet minister, said Saturday that the United States had officially informed the Palestinian National Assembly that the declaration of the so-called road map to peace had been postponed until after forming the new Israeli government. The U.S.-developed plan lays out a series of reciprocating steps toward establishing both security for Israel and a Palestinian state.

Erekat told United Press International after discussing the issue with Egyptian and Jordanian officials that the postponement "would lead to more deterioration in the region, and to a continuation of Jewish settlements activities."

One of the hitches seems to be Israel's refusal to negotiate with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Abu Ala and Abu Mazen reportedly stressed they came to the meetings with Arafat's consent.

Arafat on Saturday approved holding contacts between Palestinians and all other parties involved in the peace process, including the Israeli government. The Palestinian leader informed reporters at his Ramallah headquarters of what he called an official decision of the Palestinian leadership to continue all contacts either with the Israelis or the Quartet Committee — that is, representatives of the United States, Russia, the European Union or the United Nations.

Asked pointedly if he had given a green light to the Palestinian officials to meet with Sharon, Arafat said: "We carry on our shoulders a holy cause and we should contact everybody to find a fair and just solution based on peace, the signed agreements and the United Nations' resolutions."

Nevertheless, Israel's Weissglas insisted, "We are definitely not negotiating with Arafat." He accused Arafat of torpedoing attempts to reach agreements and described the Palestinian leader him as an old man who won't change.

Israel considered deporting Arafat but in consultations — mainly with the United States — has concluded that "his physical expulsion at this time is not desirable," Weissglas said.

Israeli officials hope Arafat would gradually dwindle. "One needs patience. Not much. I don't think we're talking of many months," Weissglas maintained.

The idea is that Arafat would no longer control the Palestinian Authority and that a Palestinian government, headed by a prime minister, would be responsible for security, economy, and finances. In such a situation Israel would agree that Arafat fulfill a symbolic role, Weissglas maintained.

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