Sharon May Ease Up on Palestinians

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he is considering taking unilateral steps to ease tensions with the Palestinians as Islamic militant groups agreed to attend talks in Cairo aimed at ending attacks on Israelis.

Both moves could be vital steps toward unfreezing talks on the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which envisions a Palestinian state in 2005. The road map, which Sharon's government accepted with reservations, has been stalled for months amid renewed violence.

"We are committed to the road map, as it was accepted by the government, and the agreements between us and the Americans," Sharon said Thursday. "Additionally, I don't rule out unilateral steps."

Sharon did not elaborate on what those steps might be. Israeli media speculated Friday that Sharon intended to ease some restrictions on Palestinians or change the way the military operates in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Government officials have discussed lifting closures of Palestinian areas and allowing more workers into Israel in an effort to bolster new Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search).

Meanwhile, all 13 Palestinian factions, including key militant groups, agreed to attend truce talks in Cairo, Palestinian officials said.

Qureia hopes to work out a truce and then ask Israel to join, an offer Israel would find hard to reject despite its misgivings.

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

Saeb Erekat (search), the chief Palestinian negotiator, said that "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 other members of the Quartet are Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

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, a Sharon adviser, said Thursday that Israel would take reciprocal steps if the Palestinians stop their attacks.

In violence Thursday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian carrying an assault rifle and a bag of grenades crawling toward the fence around the isolated Jewish settlement of Netzarim in Gaza, the military said.

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

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. Israel charged that Palestinian militants used the truce period to rearm.

Egyptian mediators met with representatives of the 13 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 (search) and Islamic Jihad (search), responsible for most of the more than 100 suicide bombings against Israelis during 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."