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Middle East: Abbas Optimistic Palestinian Militants Will Accept Cease-Fire

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas has said he expects to secure a deal soon in which militants will agree to halt attacks on Israelis -- a key step toward resumption of peace negotiations. The new Palestinian Authority president is holding talks with leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other militant factions. For its part, Israel says it is willing to respond to calm in equal measure. Is this the start at last of a more hopeful post-Arafat era?

Prague, 24 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- After a stormy start as president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmud Abbas appears to be making progress toward curbing hard-line militants.

Abbas said yesterday he is close to a deal with the militants to cease attacks on Israelis -- an essential first step toward restarting the stalled peace process.

"There has been thorough dialogue with these groups and I would like to say that everyone feels a sense of responsibility and they sense the urgency to resolve the situation in which we are now living and also the need to resolve the retaliatory attacks the Israelis carry out," Abbas said. "At this point I can say that the dialogue has developed considerably so I can say that we will be able to reach an agreement in the near future."

Abbas has moved from his headquarters on the West Bank to the Gaza Strip in order to carry on talks with militant leaders from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other factions.

The first news of an approaching deal came from the Israeli side. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said yesterday that Abbas had secured a promise from Hamas and Islamic Jihad to stop anti-Israeli attacks.

That announcement proved premature, and provoked both the main militant groups to deny any deal had been done. But from the careful wording of their denials, some kind of deal appeared to be in the works.

Israel said it will welcome any cease-fire. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev set out the terms in remarks last week.

"If we see the Palestinian Authority adopt consistent policies to stop the terrorist attacks, to stop the launching of rockets, they don't have to have a 100-percent success, all we want to see is a serious, consistent, sustainable effort," Regev said. "If we see that, I think you'll see a meeting between the two leaders, between [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon and Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas], sooner rather than later."
"[Abbas] has shown himself as a serious man, that his word is a word, that his intentions are serious." -- Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Peres

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres yesterday praised Abbas for his engagement with the militants, which comes only a week after Israel froze contact with the Palestinians following a bloody attack left six Israelis dead.

"He [Abbas] has shown himself as a serious man, that his word is a word, that his intentions are serious, that his acts are [consistent]," Peres said. "And it's a very pleasant development, a very important one. It also shows that the real infrastructure of relationships between the Palestinians and us is political rather than technological. It's not a relation between guns, it's a relation between people."

In another key move, Abbas dispatched Palestinian security forces to the northern Gaza Strip to patrol an area from which militants lob rockets at Israeli villages. The attacks had led to large-scale Israeli military retaliation, but now the rate of guerrilla attacks is down.

While hopes are again on the rise, analyst Alfred Pypers of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations advised caution.

"Time and again we have seen this in the past, many times over," Pypers said. "I mean, the cease-fire must hold, not just two or three weeks, but forever. If they take up arms again after five or six weeks, Israel will again retaliate, and you are right back at the start."

Reaching a cease-fire is hard enough. But a host of complicated questions lie beyond it.

Zalman Shoval, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said yesterday that he does not believe there will be a final Iraeli-Palestinian settlement in the present generation.

Shoval said only an interim accord will be possible, and that to try for more would be a "recipe for disaster." That's because of the different expectations each side has about how much land will be included in a Palestinian state.

Abbas, however, has said he wants a final agreement -- and that "peace cannot be reached by partial or interim solutions."

Analyst Pypers said that issues such as the presence of major Israeli settlements on the West Bank are indeed difficult. But he said a return to fighting would solve nothing.

"The point is, what are we going to do with this obstacle? Pypers said. "If we resume the violence, then this obstacle will never be removed; if one sits around a table there is at least the opportunity to get as much territory for the Palestinians, or for them to receive compensation for lost territory on the West Bank."

Despite the looming problems, the Abbas presidency is only two weeks old. A first success in achieving a cease-fire would improve daily lives -- as well as prospects for further progress.