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Palestinian rivals talk, but fail to resolve rifts

Palestinian rivals talk, but fail to resolve rifts
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Thursday, November 24, 2011 - 9:14pm

CAIRO (AP) -- Rival Palestinian leaders on Thursday held their first detailed talks on reconciliation since the Islamic militant Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip more than four years ago, declaring they made progress toward sharing power but failing to resolve key issues.

Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal talked for two hours in Cairo but did not reach agreement on touchy matters like the composition of an interim unity government and a date for elections.

The meeting raised new questions about whether the rivals are serious about sharing power, or just going through the motions.

The split, leaving competing governments in the West Bank and Gaza, has complicated peace efforts with Israel. The rift is unpopular among Palestinians, but the political camps have also benefited from the status quo and would have to give up positions of power for reconciliation.

Both leaders described the atmosphere in Thursday's meeting as positive, suggesting they are ready to embark on a partnership despite the bitter animosity of the past.

"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," said Abbas. Mashaal said that he and his former rival "opened a new page" in relations.

In Israel, government spokesman Mark Regev warned that "the closer Abu Mazen (Abbas) gets to Hamas, the further he moves away from peace." Abbas favors negotiations with Israel as the path toward Palestinian statehood, but his negotiations with Israel's current government never got off the ground. Hamas opposes peace talks and refuses to recognize the Jewish state.

Abbas and Mashaal reached a power-sharing deal in principle in May. That agreement called for the immediate formation of an interim unity government, parliamentary and presidential elections by May 2012 and the eventual merging of rival security forces.

The first stage, setting up a unity government of technocrats without clear political affiliations, ran into trouble immediately after the May deal.

Hamas refused to accept Abbas' candidate for interim prime minister, Salam Fayyad, saying the political independent and West Bank prime minister is too close to the West. It was not clear if Abbas dropped Fayyad's candidacy Thursday.

Participants would only say the formation of the government was discussed, and that lower-level talks would continue. Abbas avoided specifics in the meeting, including on the government issue, leaving Hamas wondering whether he is playing for time, said a Hamas official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details of the meeting.

Abbas would face a Western backlash - possibly including political isolation and 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 sides reiterated that elections should go ahead, as planned, in May, but did not set a date.

Voting plans could easily be derailed because Hamas has demanded assurances that Israel will not target or arrest its candidates, as it did after the 2006 parliament vote.

Abbas' Fatah movement, meanwhile, remains in disarray and seems unprepared for elections. Fatah was soundly defeated by Hamas in parliament elections in 2006 and does not have a consensus candidate for president. Abbas, 76, has said he would not run again.

In a show of good intentions, the two leaders decided that activists of the two movements would be released from detention, said Azzam al-Ahmed, an Abbas envoy. They also agreed to engage in "popular resistance," a term Palestinians use to refer to nonviolent demonstrations against Israeli occupation. It was not clear whether this meant Hamas has dropped its support for attacks against Israel. Up to now Hamas has refused to renounce violence.

Gaza analyst Hani al-Basoos said Thursday's meeting fell short of expectations. "We believed there would be an announcement that they agreed on a new government and at least a name for the prime minister, and practical steps to end the split," he said.

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 Fatah.

Abbas left Cairo shortly after the meeting.

Israeli officials have threatened to punish Abbas if he forms an alliance with Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist organization.

Since October, Israel has suspended the transfer of taxes and customs duties it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, or about $100 million a month, a sizable chunk of its revenues.

The decision came after Palestinian moved to join the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO. Israel objects to the Palestinian move to join the United Nations and U.N. agencies without a peace deal, saying peace should first be reached through negotiations.

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