Palestinian Militants Agree to Truce Talks

Thirteen Palestinian factions, including major militant groups, have agreed to attend truce talks in Cairo next month, and Palestinian officials said Thursday they expect the conference to be successful — provided Israel agrees to halt military operations.

A truce is key to reviving the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which was endorsed Wednesday by the U.N. Security Council.

But the situation remains fragile, and repeated cease-fire deals brokered in the past three years, including by Egypt, have collapsed.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia wants the militant groups, including Hamas (search) and Islamic Jihad (search), to agree to halt attacks; he would then ask Israel to join a truce, an offer Israel might find hard to reject despite misgivings.

Israel has insisted the Palestinians dismantle militant groups, as required by the road map, and it fears accepting a truce without a crackdown — as the Palestinians propose — will only allow the armed groups to recover from Israeli strikes.

However, Israel has signaled in recent days that it is softening its position. Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Thursday that Israel would take reciprocal steps if the Palestinians stop their attacks.

A diplomatic source said there are expectations that a comprehensive cease-fire will be reached in the coming weeks. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Sharon and Qureia have a mutual interest in ending the fighting.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said "the key here is reciprocity."

Erekat noted that the road map requires both sides to declare that they are halting violence. "If the Egyptians succeed in producing this from the Palestinians, it is up to the Americans and the Quartet (of Mideast mediators) to get the Israelis to do the same," he said.

The anticipated deal would include an end to militants' attacks and to Israeli military activity, and might include a halt of Israel's construction of a West Bank security barrier, the diplomatic source said.

The next step could be detailed talks on settlements, Israeli troop pullouts, and other issues, the source said.

Under such a deal, Israel would apparently make do with less than the full dismantling of Palestinian militant groups.

Senior Israeli officials have said Israel is ready to stop targeted killings of militants, while reserving the right to hit "ticking bombs."

The term once referred to militants on their way to carry out attacks but has been widened to include leaders of militant groups, some of whom have been targeted by Israel.

A unilateral Palestinian truce in the summer stopped most violence for about six weeks, but collapsed amid several deadly Israeli military raids against militants and resumed Palestinian suicide bombings.

Egyptian mediators met with representatives of the 13 disparate Palestinian factions in Gaza on Wednesday and Thursday, and Qureia said agreement was reached for a week of truce talks in Cairo, beginning Dec. 2.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad, responsible for most of the more than 100 suicide bombings against Israelis in the three-year conflict, said they would attend, along with the other factions. Nafez Azzam, an Islamic Jihad leader, said the group "will deal positively with any ideas that will serve the interests of our people.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was hopeful, saying "a good outcome will result from these meetings."

Sharon, meanwhile, played down an apparent rift between Israel and the United States, saying his relations with President Bush remain good.

Bush, in rare public criticism, took Israel to task Wednesday for settlement expansion and the "daily humiliation of the Palestinian people."

On the same day, the United States joined the Security Council's endorsement of the road map. Israel has accepted the plan, but attached 14 riders of its own and insists that only the United States monitor progress.