Significant leaders inside the Palestinian Authority are very hopeful that this week’s talks with Hamas in Cairo could lead to a joint declaration of a cease-fire, US Sen. Joseph Lieberman said Monday.

He made these comments after meeting in Ramallah with Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who will be representing the PA at the talks. He also met with PA negotiator Saeb Erekat and with Finance Minister Salaam Fayad.

If such a cease-fire declaration is followed by implementation on the ground, Lieberman told a press briefing in Jerusalem, “there is the beginning of an ember of hope that could be built into something more substantial perhaps a return to face-to-face negotiations.”

“Abu Mazen seemed passionate, energetic, and optimistic about his ability to conclude these discussions successfully,” he said.

Lieberman said such a declaration should elicit some kind of tangible response from Israel and the US, although he did not say what response he had in mind.

He praised Egypt for “showing leadership” in promoting these talks.

The senator from Connecticut, who last visited in the spring of 2000 on the eve of his landmark vice presidential campaign, said he told the Palestinians that the “most important thing they could do as Palestinian leaders is to separate Palestinian aspirations from terror and violence.”

He said he also told the Palestinians what he told Prime Minister Ariel Sharon the day before that Israel is enjoying more support in the US than he has seen at any time during his 14 years in the Senate.

“I believe the reason for this is because the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is being viewed by the American people and Congress in the broader context of the worldwide war on terrorism. The point I made repeatedly to the Palestinian leaders is that the cause of Palestinian nationalism and statehood can only be advanced if it is separated from the reality of terrorism,” he said.

Lieberman took a jab at the Bush administration’s Mideast policies, saying he believes the US should be more actively engaged.

“I think the probability that the situation here will get out of hand grows as the US is less engaged,” Lieberman said. “And so I think even now we ought to be giving this more attention.”

He said he had “tremendous regard” for the devotion former president Bill Clinton had for creating peace in the Middle East, and for the “enormous effort” he put into trying to solve the conflict.

At the same time, Lieberman does not advocate a return to the Clinton parameters, saying that while the endgame is clearly a two-state solution, “the details are up to the negotiators.”

Regarding the US campaign against Iraq, Lieberman said he is happy that Bush has “embraced a position I have argued for a decade.”

Though he said he thinks Bush has handled Iraqi policy well up to now, he said the time has come to “open up some of the intelligence information we have and share it with UN inspectors, more of our allies, and the public.

“I’m convinced, based on what I know from the briefings I have received, that the 12,000-page document given by the Iraqis was a lie. I can’t say it more directly than that.”

Lieberman said his concern with the administration’s Iraqi policy has to do with what will happen after the war. He voiced concern that, as in Afghanistan, the administration is not adequately prepared for a commitment to Iraq the day after the regime is changed and “for as long as it takes to stabilize the country and hopefully create a strong, independent state.”

Lieberman is considered a likely candidate for the Democratic Party’s 2004 presidential nomination. He has said he will make a decision about whether to seek the nomination early next year.

In Ramallah, he said he came with a message from Congress that it wants to take an active part in bringing peace to the region.

“There’s strong support for the aspirations of the Palestinian people for independent statehood. The question is whether there will be sufficient leadership here, and in the world, to bring this about sooner than later,” Lieberman told reporters after meeting PA Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.

“It’s important to bring about hope in Palestinians and among Israelis, because without hope there will be no progress.”

Erekat said they discussed the presence of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land and about the urgent need to revive the peace process.

“We agreed together that every effort must be exerted to revive the peace process and put it back on track,” Erekat said. “And we agreed that, at the end of the day, if there’s going to be peace, it’s going to be in a two-state solution.”

Touring the city, Lieberman was surprised by the damage to the main Palestinian West Bank commercial hub. “There are desperate humanitarian conditions here,” he said.

Abed Rabbo said he had explained to Lieberman that the cabinet decided Sunday to postpone presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for January because it is logistically impossible for people to vote while Israel occupies every major Palestinian West Bank town and city, except Jericho.

News agencies contributed to this report.

This piece ran in the Jerusalem Post on 24 December 2002