Fatah and Hamas meet again to break power deadlock

(www.latwp.com) вЂ" Leaders of rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas will meet Tuesday in a new venue, but they confront the same obstacles to a power-sharing arrangement that have torpedoed past negotiations.

The two sides gather in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in what could be a final attempt to form a unity government aimed at ending their yearlong power struggle and breaking the Western aid embargo imposed after Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006.

Stakes are high. The talks come after a new spate of factional clashes in the Gaza Strip that left more than two dozen Palestinians dead and dimmed hopes of resolving the deadlock through peaceful negotiations, reports Trend.

A two-day-old cease-fire in the Gaza Strip appeared to be largely holding Monday, although a Hamas official was abducted in the West Bank city of Ramallah, most likely by Fatah gunmen.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, has said he will call early elections if talks over forming a unity government fail again. Hamas rejects early elections as illegal, accusing Fatah of seeking its ouster. Many Palestinians worry that a failure to reach accommodation could plunge the Gaza Strip and West Bank into further

violence and continued economic hardship.

Abbas and his party's delegation will meet with exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal and other key representatives of the radical Islamist group, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

Abbas met Meshaal, a hard-liner based in Damascus, in the Syrian capital last month. But the pair did not break the impasse between their groups.

Haniyeh said Monday that Hamas was committed to easing tensions, and he expressed optimism that the two sides would strike a deal in spite of the obstacles. ``We have no choice but to reach an agreement,'' he said.

The talks are to take place under the auspices of Saudi King Abdullah, who invited the Palestinian factions amid a series of deadly clashes in the Gaza Strip that killed more than 50 people during the past two weeks. By lending the kingdom's regional influence to the

mediation effort, Saudi leaders hope to promote their role as peace brokers and to dim the appeal of Iran, which has expanded its ties with Hamas by pledging millions of dollars to make up for the aid cutoff.

Fatah officials also expressed hope for a breakthrough that would ease factional hostilities and satisfy Western conditions sufficiently to get direct aid flowing again to the Palestinian Authority. Western donor nations cut aid last year with the stipulation that it be resumed only if the Hamas-led government recognized Israel, renounced

violence and promised to abide by past Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Hamas has rejected those conditions.

The differences between Fatah and Hamas remain wide, and it was unclear whether they would bridge them this time.

Abbas favors a negotiated, two-state solution to the conflict with Israel and has sought to get Hamas to agree on a shared political program that would at least implicitly recognize the Jewish state by promising to ``commit'' to past Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

But Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, has proposed a long-term truce and suggested wording for the government's political program that is purposefully vague, such as saying it would ``respect'' past agreements, as long as they were in the interest of the Palestinian people.

But it remained to be seen whether anything short of explicit recognition of Israel would meet Western demands.

Abbas aides say there will be no unity government unless the two groups agree on a platform that clears the way for a possible peace agreement with Israel and meets Western demands.

``We must have a national unity government with a political program that will enable us to break the siege,'' said Saeb Erekat, an Abbas adviser and chief Palestinian negotiator.

Kadoura Fares, a former Fatah legislator who met recently with Meshaal, said he was confident the two sides would emerge with an agreement.

Fares said there was tentative accord on key Cabinet posts: Haniyeh would remain as prime minister; Salam Fayad, a political independent who formerly served as finance minister, would return to that position; and Ziad abu Amr, an independent lawmaker endorsed by Hamas, would become foreign minister. An interior minister, who oversees the security forces, would be chosen from a list assembled by Hamas, Fares
said.

Optimism has proved ill-founded in the past.

In September, Abbas and Haniyeh said they had agreed on a unity government, only to have the deal fall apart. The two sides have said numerous times that they were close to an agreement but ultimately have not reached one.

Some analysts say Hamas and Fatah hold ideologies that are too divergent, with mutual animosities too strong, for any agreement to last long before the shooting starts again. ``The question today is not which agenda or politics the government will take. The question today is who will eat and who will not eat, who will have power and who will not,'' said Mordechai Kedar, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. ``The fight is over everything.''

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