Talks resume in Israel but violence goes on

JERUSALEM — After months of inactivity, the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic track is showing some faint signs of life.

According to reports published this week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met Feb. 5 in Jerusalem with Ahmed Karia, the speaker of the Palestinian legislative council, as part of efforts to renew high-level contacts between the two sides.

In addition, Dov Weisglass, who heads the Prime Minister's Office, met last week with the Palestinian officials in charge of finance and interior affairs.

Some observers question the significance of the meetings, which were followed by continued violence.

During his meeting with Karia, Sharon offered the Palestinians a gradual cease-fire.

He proposed that the Palestinian Authority choose one or two cities for which it will assume full security responsibility. If the Palestinian Authority takes action to halt terrorist attacks, Israel will withdraw its troops from those areas and ease restrictions on the Palestinian population.

In the discussions, Sharon reiterated his refusal to negotiate with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Sharon also laid out three conditions for the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians: replacement of the Palestinian leadership, implementation of comprehensive reforms in the Palestinian Authority, and an end to terrorism.

Although Weisglass was expected to hold further meetings with Palestinian officials this week, political observers were cautious to herald any real diplomatic movement just yet.

Instead, they suggested, there could be two factors behind the public disclosure of last week's meetings: the looming showdown with Iraq and Sharon's negotiations with Israeli political parties about creating the next government.

The Israeli daily Ma'ariv suggested that last week's talks were held following pressure from the United States, which hopes signs of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track will help generate international support for its campaign against Iraq.

Last Friday, the U.S. State Department warned private citizens not to travel to Israel as tensions with Iraq mount. The United States also urged all but essential U.S. diplomats, along with their family members, to leave Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Although Arafat said over the weekend that he welcomed the renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks, one Palestinian official, Sufian Abu Zaide, accused Sharon of not being serious about making diplomatic progress with the Palestinians. Instead, he said, Sharon is motivated by domestic political interests.

While sources close to Sharon say contacts with the Palestinians preceded Israel's Jan. 28 elections, observers have suggested that Sharon is interested in demonstrating his willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians as part of efforts to convince Israel's Labor Party to join a unity government.

Meanwhile, violence continued. Israel banned all Palestinians from entering Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip late Monday, the Defense Ministry said, citing warnings of Palestinian attacks.

Three Palestinians were killed Sunday in a suicide car-bombing outside an Israeli army post in southern Gaza. Two Israeli soldiers were lightly injured in the blast. In the West Bank on Sunday, Israeli troops arrested a Palestinian near Nablus who they said was planning to carry out a suicide attack.

In another incident, Israeli police found a suicide bomber's belt with 33 pounds of explosives Feb. 6 in a mosque.