Palestinian rivals to hold rare working meeting

November 23, 2011 - 1:50 PM

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The upcoming meeting of President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, the rival Palestinian leaders, will signal whether they're truly ready to share power or largely going through the motions for political gains.

Thursday's talks in Cairo will be their first serious sitdown since the Palestinians' corrosive split of 2007, when the Islamic militant Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from Abbas, leaving him with only the West Bank. Repeated attempts at reconciliation have failed, and a power-sharing deal the leaders signed in principle in May has stalled, mainly over who would head an interim unity government.

Hamas adamantly opposes Abbas' long-standing choice, West Bank-based Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and the only way forward Thursday would be to resolve this dispute.

Even if Abbas were to sacrifice the internationally backed Fayyad — as some aides say he is willing to do — it's far from certain the two sides are ready to go through with the other elements of the unity deal. As part of the agreement, legislative and presidential elections would be held in the West Bank and Gaza within a year of the formation of an interim government, and the rivals' security forces would be merged.

Abbas risks a Western backlash for getting too close to the militant Hamas, and faces a possible election defeat for his Fatah movement, trounced by Hamas at the polls five years ago.

Hamas, in turn, would have to dismantle its empire in Gaza in exchange for uncertain election prospects, including the arresting of its West Bank candidates by Israel, as happened in the past.

The most it seems the two leaders can hope for Thursday is to resolve the dispute over the prime minister and to start talking about a shared political program, said those involved in preparing the meeting. They will not discuss election dates or details of the composition of the interim government, which is to be made up of experts without clear political affiliation, said Abbas' envoy to the talks, Azzam al-Ahmed.

The political split has been deeply unpopular among Palestinians, and public pressure is a key reason why Abbas and Mashaal are trying to heal it. Regionwide changes over the past few months have given both men an additional push.

Earlier this year, Abbas abandoned his long-standing strategy of trying to negotiate the terms of Palestinian statehood with Israel, arguing that a deal is not possible with Israel's current hard-line government. As part of his strategic shift, he's been trying to build Palestinian leverage, including by seeking U.N. recognition of a state of Palestine.

A unity deal would be part of that approach. The split has deprived him of stature, since he cannot claim to speak for all Palestinians, and even the U.N. committee reviewing the Palestinian membership application noted as a negative point that Abbas does not control Gaza.

Hamas, meanwhile, has benefited from the anti-government uprisings of the Arab Spring. The toppling of pro-Western dictators in the region, including Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, have strengthened Hamas' parent movement, the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood. Some argue that the initial reconciliation deal of May would not have been possible without the ouster of Mubarak who was suspected, at least by Hamas, of blocking any progress on the issue.

The United States and much of Europe oppose an Abbas partnership with an unreformed Hamas, which has rejected international demands that it recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous Palestinian interim agreements with the Jewish state.

On Wednesday, Hamas leaders reiterated that there's no chance for compromise. "Hamas' attitude toward so-called Israel remains unchanged," said Salah Bardawil, a Hamas official. "We will not recognize the enemy."

Abbas hopes to find common ground based on Mashaal suggestions that the movement could accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War. Hamas refuses to say, though, if it would consider the 1967 borders the final ones, or a stepping stone to the destruction of Israel.

It's not clear if and how the West would punish Abbas for an alliance with Hamas, but options include political isolation and a cut in vital financial support. The Fayyad government receives hundreds of millions of dollars a year in budget support and development aid.

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Barzak reported from Gaza City, Gaza. Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Ramallah contributed.