Rival Palestinian leaders say they narrowed gaps

By IBRAHIM BARZAK and MAAMOUN YOUSSEF | November 24, 2011 | 9:25 AM EST

CAIRO (AP) — The long-estranged leaders of the two rival Palestinian political movements said Thursday they significantly narrowed differences and opened a new page in relations in reconciliation talks in Cairo.

Despite the upbeat tone, it remained unclear whether Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Khaled Mashaal, chief of the Islamic militant Hamas, made real progress toward implementing a power-sharing deal they reached in principle in May.

That agreement includes forming an interim unity government, holding parliamentary and presidential elections by May and eventually merging rival security forces.

Abbas and Mashaal talked for two hours Thursday, their first working meeting since Hamas seized Gaza in 2007 and left Abbas with only the West Bank. Previous reconciliation attempts failed and over the years, both set up rival governments in their territories.

Abbas is trying to establish an independent state in the two territories, located on opposite sides of Israel.

Abbas said Thursday's atmosphere was positive and that there "were no differences" regarding the issues. "What is important to us is that we deal with each other as partners and shoulder the same responsibility toward our people and our cause," he said.

Mashaal said that he and his former rival "opened a new page" in relations. He said it would take some time for agreements reached in the meeting to be implemented, but he did not explain.

Neither side commented on the dispute that held up the first stage of a deal — formation of a unity government of technocrats without clear political affiliations.

Abbas wanted to see his West Bank prime minister, Salam Fayyad, as the head of the interim government, but Hamas rejected that. It was not clear if Abbas dropped Fayyad, an internationally respected economist, as a candidate in Thursday's talks. Hamas believes Abbas is too close to the West.

Azzam al-Ahmed, an Abbas envoy, said activists of the two movements would be released from detention and that elections for parliament and president would be held as planned, in May. He did not elaborate on either issue.

He also said the two sides agreed to engage in "popular resistance." Many Palestinians use this term to refer to nonviolent demonstrations against Israeli occupation. It was not clear whether this meant the Islamic militant Hamas has dropped its support for attacks against Israel. Up to now Hamas has refused to renounce violence.

Abbas left Cairo shortly after the meeting.

Despite the good will expressed by both sides, it appeared unlikely they could go through with all aspects of the agreement.

Abbas would face a Western backlash — and possibly the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid — for striking up a political partnership with Hamas and allowing activists of the widely shunned movement into the Palestinian security forces.

Both the Islamists and Abbas' Fatah movement also have major concerns about elections.

Fatah, soundly defeated by Hamas in parliament elections in 2006, is ill-prepared for another legislative vote and does not have a consensus candidate for president. Abbas, 76, has said he would not run again. Hamas fears Israel might target and arrest its candidates, as it did after the 2006 vote.

At the same time, the political split is deeply unpopular among Palestinians, and public pressure is a key reason why Abbas and Mashaal are trying to heal it. Region-wide changes over the past few months, including the failure to resume meaningful Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, have given an additional push toward reconciliation.

The two sides are set to meet again next month, starting Dec. 20, to discuss restructuring the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella group headed by Abbas.

Hamas, which is not part of the PLO, is seeking a role in the group as a possible stepping stone for taking the lead of the Palestinian independence movement from Abbas' Fatah.


Barzak reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.