Rival Palestinian leaders pledge to reach deal

MECCA — In a palace overlooking Islam’s holiest site, rival Palestinian leaders vowed yesterday to work out a power-sharing agreement to avert a civil war, asking their followers to abide by a truce during the marathon talks crucial to the peace process with Israel.

But threats of new revenge attacks arose in Gaza after the killing of a Hamas activist, underlining the danger of an explosion of factional fighting if the talks in Mecca fail.

“We will not leave this holy place until we have agreed on everything good, with God’s blessing,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said at an opening ceremony, sitting alongside his rival Khaled Mashaal, head of the militant group Hamas.

“I tell our people to expect good news, and I hope this [meeting] will not be mere words in the air,” Abbas said at the ceremony, which was aired live on television across the Mideast.

Mashaal turned to Abbas and said they both had to tell their supporters to respect a truce reached Sunday, to which Abbas nodded his agreement.

“We want to give a message to the nation, and the world, to create a positive atmosphere for these talks,” Mashaal said. “We came here to agree and we have no other option but to agree.”

The talks were held in a palace overlooking the Kaaba, the cube-shaped shrine toward which all Muslims face when praying. Saudi television repeatedly moved from scenes of the ceremony to images of the Kaaba — reflecting Saudi hopes that the venue will press the sides to resolve their differences.

Both sides sounded optimistic last night. Nabil Amr, a spokesman for Abbas, said he hoped to reach a deal on a coalition government within 48 hours. “We have finished the general talks and exchanges of views. Now we have started discussions over forming the Cabinet and its political program,” he told the Associated Press.

“The atmosphere is positive. I expect to reach a deal on sharing power — we have no alternative but to reach a deal,” said Mohammed Nazal, of the Hamas delegation. The talks were to continue through the night.

The gathering is a high-stakes bid by Saudi Arabia to end bloodshed between Palestinians that has killed dozens in recent months. Saudi Arabia wants the Palestinians to reach a deal on a coalition government not only to end the bloodshed but also so that the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process can resume — something the kingdom believes is vital to reducing tensions across the Mideast.

In two rounds of talks between Abbas and Mashaal yesterday, Saudi King Abdullah and Saudi officials did not participate. Abdullah hosted a lunch in which the two leaders sat on either side of the monarch.

Abbas aides said they may need more direct intervention from Abdullah — a sign of how difficult the few final obstacles to a deal may be to overcome. “We asked him to intervene because he has the respect of the two parties,” Amr said in an interview.

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