Diplomacy talks resume in Israeli-Palestinian conflict

RAMALLAH, West Bank – Visiting German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said yesterday that Palestinian presidential elections and an end to violence could lead to renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but leaders of the Islamic group Hamas dismissed the possibility of a truce.

Fischer’s visit was part of an intense flurry of diplomacy aimed at reinvigorating long-stalled peace efforts after Yasser Arafat’s death last month. U.S. and European mediators have expressed rare optimism at ending more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Elections to replace Arafat are set for Jan. 9.

“I think the present situation with the coming election is a great opportunity — if there is responsible behavior by all parties on the ground and by the international community — to move toward a resumption of the peace talks which will lead to two states living peacefully side by side,” said Fischer, who met with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

But in Gaza yesterday, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said a truce was not on any agenda.

“Not a single word was said about a truce,” Zahar said. “We are defending ourselves and our people, pushing the Israelis out of our land.”

In Lebanon, Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy head of Hamas’ political bureau, expressed hope the United States and European Union would be “fairer” in mediating the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but he said his group would continue its resistance even if a Palestinian state was established.

Abu Marzouk told The Associated Press a Palestinian state was a right “stipulated by all international accords” but was not a reason for Hamas to stop its resistance.

Zahar said Hamas would accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza as a first step, but would not give up its struggle to liberate “all of Palestine,” including Israel.

Zahar’s comments countered those of a West Bank Hamas leader, Hassan Yousef, who indicated last week that Hamas might move away from violence and toward a political settlement.

Qureia said the talks with Fischer concerned the peace process, election issues and the Palestinians’ poor financial situation with Fisher. The Palestinians had planned to ask for help in rehabilitating their ravaged economy and their security forces.

“The talks were excellent, friendly, and I’m leaving Ramallah with a very optimistic impression,” Fischer said.

He emphasized that Israel needed to give the Palestinian candidates freedom of movement between the West Bank and Gaza and expressed hope that a smooth vote could be a good symbol.

“If the election is successful, this would be an important signal to the Arab world,” he said.

Later yesterday, Fischer met Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

Meanwhile, Palestinian officials said Abbas, Qureia and other senior leaders will head to Syria today to discuss both sides’ peace efforts. Other officials reported they would meet with Khaled Mashaal, the leader of the militant Hamas group, to discuss a possible cease-fire.

Abbas denied he planned to hold truce negotiations with Mashaal.

“I’m going to meet with Syrian officials to discuss Syrian-Palestinian issues and to discuss issues of the Arab world. As for the (truce) dialogue with the Palestinian factions it will take place on place on Palestinian land and not outside,” he said.