Hamas and Fatah promise to reach compromise
MECCA: Leaders of Hamas and Fatah, the two main Palestinian political groups, opened an emergency summit meeting Wednesday in Islam's holiest city, promising to compromise in forming a new government. They expressed a desire to salvage the Israel-Palestinian peace process and end the violence that has wracked Gaza and the West Bank.
Ismail Haniya, the Palestinian prime minister, and Khaled Meshaal, the Damascus-based militant leader, who are members of Hamas, faced Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president from Fatah, at a round table as other Palestinian officials looked on in a palace towering above Mecca's Grand Mosque, the birthplace of Islam.
The men were essentially left inside the room to thrash out their differences, while Saudi officials and advisers stayed outside, offering help but insisting that they are not directly involved.
"We came here to agree and have no option but to agree," Meshaal said, speaking to his counterparts in opening remarks broadcast on Saudi TV.
The meeting, which was likely to last at least two days, was meant to lead to a government that would include members of both parties and be acceptable to Western governments so they could resume relations and aid to the Palestinians and restart the peace process with the Israelis.
Without progress there is risk of civil war, many political analysts say. The feuding factions have broken numerous cease-fire agreements since clashes began last summer.
The high profile of the meeting in Islam's holiest city, and the personal involvement of King Abdullah added a degree of pressure on the men to leave with some sort of agreement.
"We will not leave this holy place until we have agreed on everything, with God's blessing," Abbas said he had told supporters. "I tell our people to expect good news, and I hope this will not be mere words in the air."
Haniya said: "Maybe we will return with a new dawn. Maybe we will return with new understandings." He added:
"As Palestinians we have a major responsibility to the Muslim nation. It is about Jerusalem, it is about the Aksa, the brother of this great mosque."
The issues separating Hamas and Fatah center on how to divide the ministerial portfolios, especially the security portfolios, and how the new government could meet Western criteria for renouncing violence, recognizing Israel and accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Hamas has refused to recognize the peace accords that Israel signed with the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1994.
Margaret Beckett, the British foreign minister, warned Wednesday on a visit to Israel that even if the rival factions were to settle their differences, Britain would not engage the government if Hamas refused to recognize Israel and renounce violence. Any new Palestinian government would have to meet the demands of the so-called Quartet, which comprises the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, she told Israeli Army Radio.
"If nothing new changes from the position there's been hitherto, I'm afraid the position will stay the same," she said. Hamas has resisted giving concessions, arguing that earlier peace steps by the PLO cost the Palestinians dearly.