Palestinian PM: Cease-Fire Talks Could Happen Soon

Palestinian militants are sending "very positive" signals that they are ready for a cease-fire with Israel, a top aide to the Palestinian prime minister said Sunday, a day before Egypt's intelligence chief arrives for truce talks.

Cabinet secretary Hassan Abu Libdeh (search) said in an interview with The Associated Press that he is confident Israel and the Palestinians can halt three years of fighting very soon. Whether a cease-fire can hold, he cautioned, will depend largely on Israel.

Abu Libdeh's boss, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search), hopes to reach a cease-fire as a first step of resuming talks on the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan (search), which envisions full Palestinian independence by 2005. The plan has stalled amid violence and Palestinian political wrangling.

"The Palestinian factions are giving us very positive indications," 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."

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

It was unclear whether the two groups, responsible for dozens of suicide bombings over the past three years, would participate in the meetings.

Qureia hopes to persuade Islamic militant groups to end attacks against Israel as a first step toward securing an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire. A cease-fire also could strengthen Qureia, whose government was sworn into office last week. An earlier truce — hammered out by his predecessor — collapsed over the summer in a fresh wave of bloodshed.

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

"If you can stop (Israel's) aggression and get an initiative from it and from America, then come to the Palestinian resistance and we will study it," Mashaal said Sunday in Beirut, Lebanon.

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, Abu Libdeh said he is confident the fighting can be halted. "My analysis is that it will happen for sure," he told AP.

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 is already taking place behind the scenes.

Meanwhile, Israeli forces in the West Bank town of Tulkarem arrested a Palestinian activist they said was armed. Naif Jarad, 47, a member of the Palestine National Council, a PLO body.

Abu Libdeh said 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.

But he said that Israel must be ready to work with the Palestinians.

Israel has imposed a series of measures on the Palestinians, including travel restrictions and construction of a massive security barrier cutting through lands the Palestinians consider their own.

"Israel will have to come back to its senses and come back and think of the requirements of the other partner," he said. "In exchange, the Palestinians will try as much as possible to put their own house in order."

Qureia and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have been preparing for a possible summit in the coming days to discuss the road map.

Israel has previously demanded the Palestinians crack down on militant groups as a first step. That move is called for in the road map, but it also sets requirements of Israel — such as a settlement freeze — that Israel has ignored.

Qureia says he will not clamp down on militants, but instead prefers to use persuasion to end the attacks. Israeli officials have hinted they may be softening their stance, and would judge Qureia primarily by whether he succeeds in bringing quiet.

Abu Libdeh noted that the Israeli and Palestinian people are both "sick and tired" of the fighting.

Public discontent has put new pressure on Sharon, a hard-line former army general. Last week, four former chiefs of Israel's Shin Bet security service joined the chorus of criticism, warning of a catastrophe if a peace deal is not reached soon.

On Sunday, Israeli backers of an unofficial peace plan known as the "Geneva Accord" began a mass mailing of the document. The authors, which include former Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, hope to build support for their proposal.

The plan would create a Palestinian state on nearly all the land Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War, including disputed holy sites in Jerusalem. In return, Palestinians would give up their demand for a "right of return" for Palestinian war refugees and their descendants to Israel.

Sharon has vehemently opposed the Geneva plan, but it has gained enough traction in Israel to prompt a widespread debate.

Uri Zaki, spokesman for Israeli negotiator Yossi Beilin, said almost two million copies of the 47-page document were mailed to Hebrew-speaking households. Arabic copies will be mailed out next week to Israel's Arab citizens, and copies are also being distributed to the Russian-speaking population, he said.

On the Palestinian side, where mail service is sporadic, details of the agreement are being published in newspapers. A copy appeared in Sunday's edition of al-Quds, an Arabic-language paper published in east Jerusalem.