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P.L.O.’s Abbas Meets Hamas’s Meshal in Cairo

January 10th, 2013 World

JERUSALEM — President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority met on Wednesday in Cairo with Khaled Meshal, the political chief of Mr. Abbas’s rival, Hamas, but it was unclear if they were able to overcome any of the differences that have fueled a bitter five-year feud.

The two were invited to Cairo by President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, who first met each separately as he tried to broker a reconciliation. Mr. Morsi had hoped to convene trilateral talks, but they did not happen, officials said, suggesting that progress, if any, was minimal.

Since their 2007 split, Mr. Abbas’s Fatah faction, which dominates in the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, have signed four reconciliation agreements that have failed to come to fruition.

After meeting with Mr. Morsi, Mr. Abbas said in a statement, “We discussed the Palestinian conditions and the means to achieve reconciliation through implementing the agreed-upon steps according to the Doha and Cairo agreements,” referring to Fatah-Hamas pacts signed last year in the two Arab capitals.

The Egyptian peace-brokering efforts came after a huge turnout on Friday for a Fatah rally in Gaza that many saw as a signal of improved relations between the parties. Cairo’s involvement is seen as critical, because of its role as a regional powerhouse and its alliances with both the United States and Israel.

But many analysts say that the gulf between the militant, Islamist Hamas and the more moderate, negotiation-oriented Fatah remains deep on major policy questions like whether to recognize Israel and what the borders of a future Palestinian state should be.

While November’s eight-day conflict between Israel and the Gaza Strip and the United Nations’ upgrade of the Palestinians’ status intensified popular calls for reconciliation, experts say that neither leader seems willing to make the necessary compromises or risk losing power.

“Unity is again being driven by tactical considerations, not by a sincere desire to unify ranks,” Aaron David Miller, a longtime State Department employee who is now vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, wrote in a commentary posted Wednesday on foreignpolicy.com. “Unity talks with start, stop, start again, and perhaps even result in a formal accord. But beneath this faux process, the players will continue to dig in their heels.”

The three main issues on the table are the formation of a national unity government (and who would lead it); the scheduling of presidential and parliamentary elections; and the reconstitution of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Mr. Abbas leads, to include Hamas and other militant factions.

Both sides say they support all three, but Hamas argues that the new government should be formed first, and lead the elections process, while Fatah wants elections first. Saeb Erekat, a Fatah leader who accompanied Mr. Abbas to Cairo, said one possible outcome of Wednesday’s talks could be a meeting next month of the P.L.O. leadership that included representatives of Hamas and Fatah.

Diana Buttu, a lawyer in Ramallah who used to work with Mr. Abbas and is now critical of him, said Wednesday’s meetings were motivated in part by the Palestinian Authority’s deepening fiscal crisis, and the Egyptians’ ability to pressure Persian Gulf states to provide promised donations.

That the talks came on the anniversary of Mr. Abbas’s election in 2005 to a four-year term, she said, only underlines the need for new balloting.

“Reconciliation is ripe now, but I think they will both let the fruit spoil unless they are sent the message that their party’s survival depends on reconciliation,” Ms. Buttu said.

Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, in Jerusalem, said he thought that Egypt’s involvement could make a difference, and that when he met recently with Mr. Meshal, his desire for reconciliation seemed sincere.

“If there will be a political statement, it means we are in the right path,” Mr. Abdul-Hadi said in an interview. “If there is no political statement, the impasse is still there.”

Hours later, Mr. Erekat said Mr. Abbas would not be issuing a statement after meeting with Mr. Meshal.

David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting from Cairo.