January 21, 2007 in Nation/World

Palestinians delay talks on unity government

Zeina Karam Associated Press
Associated Press photo

Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, talks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Damascus on Saturday.
(Full-size photo)

DAMASCUS, Syria – Key talks on forming a Palestinian unity government and ending deadly infighting were canceled Saturday night, dimming expectations for a planned meeting between the Palestinian president and the exiled leader of Hamas militants.

“The meeting was postponed until tomorrow (at the earliest). We hope that it will be held,” said Izzat Rashaq, a member of Hamas’ politburo.

Rashaq said further preliminary negotiations were needed to resolve differences over forming a coalition government before Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal could meet. He did not elaborate.

Another senior member of a Palestinian faction also said the meeting had been postponed.

“There are difficulties facing such a meeting and there are current mediations to try to resolve the problems,” he said, agreeing to discuss the matter only if not quoted by name or even by faction because of the sensitivity of the matter.

There had been hopes that the meeting – the first between Abbas and Mashaal since July 2005 – could end the yearlong political deadlock between the militant Hamas, which controls the Palestinian parliament and Cabinet, and Abbas’ more moderate Fatah movement.

With the two sides unable to agree, tensions have repeatedly exploded into warfare in the Gaza Strip – a traditional Hamas stronghold – that has killed at least 62 people.

The thorniest issues are control of the two factions’ security forces and Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Western nations are demanding that the militant Islamic group accept Israel’s existence and renounce violence as a condition for ending an economic boycott they imposed on the Palestinian Authority after Hamas won legislative elections last year.

Abbas has been pushing Hamas for months to form a unity government of independent experts in hopes of ending the sanctions and has threatened to call early elections if the two sides can’t agree.

Before Abbas arrived in Damascus on Saturday, he had billed the planned talks with Mashaal as a last-ditch effort to end the crisis.

But, as Abbas began meeting with leading members of other Palestinian factions Saturday evening, his aide Saeb Erekat sought to play down the significance of any talks with Mashaal and would not confirm a meeting had been planned.

“The purpose of this visit is for President Abbas to meet with (Syrian) President (Bashar) Assad, though I’m not excluding the possibility of President Abbas meeting with Mr. Mashaal and other Palestinian leaders in Damascus,” Erekat told reporters.

Abbas met with the Syrian-based leaders of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Islamic Jihad at his hotel in the Syrian capital.

Rashaq, the Hamas official, said Islamic Jihad leaders and the leaders of other Palestinian factions were involved in mediation efforts to try to resolve the problems between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah movement. “We hope an agreement can be reached,” he said.

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