- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2003

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian militants are sending signals that they are ready for a cease-fire with Israel, a top aide to the Palestinian prime minister said yesterday, a day before Egypt’s intelligence chief arrives for truce talks.

Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Hassan Abu Libdeh said in an interview that he is confident Israel and the Palestinians can halt three years of fighting soon. Whether a cease-fire can hold, he said, will depend largely on Israel.

Mr. Abu Libdeh’s boss, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, hopes to reach a cease-fire as a first step of resuming talks on the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, which envisions a Palestinian state by 2005. The plan has stalled amid violence and Palestinian political wrangling.

“The Palestinian factions are giving us very positive indications,” Mr. Abu Libdeh said. “I think that if Israel does not play around with us, they are willing to go as far as possible … but it is all in Israel’s hands.”

Mr. Qureia said yesterday that truce talks with the militants would begin soon after the arrival today of Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. The Egyptian, who has helped mediate past cease-fires, is coming to assist Mr. Qureia in talks with Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

It was not clear whether the two groups, responsible for dozens of suicide bombings over the past three years, would participate in the meetings.

Mr. Qureia hopes to persuade Islamist militant groups to end attacks against Israel as a first step toward securing an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire. A cease-fire also could strengthen Mr. Qureia, whose government was sworn into office last week.

An earlier truce — negotiated by his predecessor — collapsed during the summer in a wave of bloodshed.

That cease-fire was declared unilaterally by the militant groups. Yesterday, Hamas’ political leader, Khaled Mashaal, said his group would consider ending the violence only if Israel reciprocates.

“If you can stop [Israels] aggression and get an initiative from it and from America, then come to the Palestinian resistance and we will study it,” Mr. Mashaal said in Beirut.

Israel, however, has not said whether it would agree to halt its military operations. Israeli officials have said they must continue acting against what they term “ticking bombs” — what they call militants who are on the verge of carrying out attacks, although critics say officials define the term too broadly.

Despite the misgivings, Mr. Abu Libdeh said he is confident the fighting can be halted. “My analysis is that it will happen for sure,” he said.

Mr. Abu Libdeh, who holds a Ph.D. in statistics from Cornell University, has emerged as an influential voice in the new Palestinian government.

Closely involved in Palestinian contacts with Israel and the United States, he indicated that progress already is taking place behind the scenes.

Mr. Abu Libdeh said Mr. Qureia is serious about bringing peace to the region. If the new government fails, the Palestinians, suffering from widespread unemployment, poverty and lawlessness in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, will pay “a very high price,” he said.

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