Palestinian talks “fruitful” , to continue

DAMASCUS (Agencies) — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Sunday his negotiations with Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal had been “fruitful” and that talks to form a unity government would continue.

“We discussed the national unity government. We hope the dialogue will continue,” Abbas told reporters after three hours of meetings with Mishaal. A joint communique read out to reporters said the talks would resume in two weeks.

“There are still points of disagreement between us but we will sort it through dialogue,” Mishaal said. Both men stressed the need to prevent rivalry between their Fateh and Hamas factions from spilling over into civil war. The two sides stressed that recent Palestinian infighting, which has killed at least 62 people, was unacceptable and pledged to exert efforts to avoid political friction.

“We stress that dialogue is the only language allowed for solving our differences. … It is not normal to fight,” Mishaal said.

The meeting was held after two days of back and forth negotiations in an effort to resolve bitter differences and form a Palestinian unity government, Mishaal aides said.

Mishaal, who lives in exile in Syria, was surrounded by security through a backdoor into the hotel suite where Abbas was staying in Damascus.

There were hopes that the Abbas-Mishaal meeting, the first between the two since July 2005, would make headway in forming a national unity government and end months of infighting.

But political differences remain unsettled and officials from both sides have cautioned that the talks may not yield immediate results.

The meeting was attended by the deputy head of Hamas’ political bureau Moussa Abu Marzouk and other Syrian-based members as well as Abbas’ close aides. After an hour of discussions, the two began a secluded meeting later Sunday. A senior Palestinian official close to the meetings said the talks were “positive and amicable” and that the two sides discussed Palestinian unity and forming a coalition government.

The meeting comes after intense Syrian mediation and shuttle talks that Syrian Vice President Farouq Sharaa held first with Mishaal, and later with Abbas.

Abu Marzouk told the Associated Press that “active and serious mediation” by the Syrians had succeeded in convincing Abbas and Mishaal to hold the long-negotiated meeting after it had been postponed Saturday because of differences.

The development reversed Abu Marzouk’s earlier statement that the possibility of the meeting was “nonexistent”. Abu Marzouk had blamed the moderate Fateh president for the breakdown of talks and hinted that Abbas had come under Israeli and US pressure not to meet with Mishaal.

The meeting “will send a message to the Palestinian people that the two sides are committed to continue dialogue,” Abu Marzouk said.

However, he warned that political differences remained unsettled, and he did not expect the talks to result in an agreement on a unity government.

Mishaal — the supreme leader of Hamas which the United States has labelled as a “terrorist group” — has lived in Damascus since 1997, when he survived an Israeli assassination attempt in Jordan.

Hamas, which controls the Palestinian parliament and Cabinet, and Abbas’ more moderate Fateh movement, have been stuck in political deadlock since Hamas’ election victory last year.

Western nations have demanded that Hamas accept Israel’s existence as a condition for ending an international economic boycott imposed on the Palestinian Authority after Hamas’ election win.

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.

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

Abu Marzouk said that the main sticking point in coalition talks were the conditions under which Abbas would name a new prime minister for the national unity government.

Abbas, Israel and the international community want Hamas to recognise Israel’s right to exist and abide by past agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians.

Hamas has said it would be willing to respect only previous agreements it deems as fair to the Palestinians.

But this falls short of international and Israeli demands that all earlier accords be recognised by Hamas.

In the Hamas stronghold of Gaza — where tensions between the two factions frequently have exploded into open warfare — Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, downplayed the significance of the Abbas-Mishaal meeting, predicting no breakthrough results.

“It is not the meeting of last chances, and if it doesn’t yield 100 per cent agreements, it doesn’t mean that we are heading to a new crisis,” Haniyeh told a gathering on Sunday. “The dialogue … has gone a long way. … Ninety per cent of the issues have been agreed upon. Some issues remain.” Haniyeh also announced that Fateh and Hamas representatives would meet in Gaza on Tuesday for further dialogue that has been endorsed both by Abbas and himself.

Abbas came to Damascus bolstered by Israel’s decision on Friday to release $100 million in frozen Palestinian taxes that Israel has refused to turn over to the Hamas-controlled Palestinian government.

Israel said the money would be used by Abbas for humanitarian purposes and to strengthen his security forces.

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