Abbas, Meshal Talk About 'New Page' but Fail to Forge Unity Government

Official at the Israeli Prime Minister's Office says news 'increases the distance to peace' - a relatively moderate response.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal met in Cairo yesterday for what had been billed as a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation summit, but the two leaders settled for declarations without committing to a date for elections or announcing a new unity government.

Abbas and Meshal did, however, say they had agreed to work together and solve the problem of politically motivated arrests. Meshal announced that he and Abbas had "opened a new page in relations" during their two-hour meeting, while Abbas said there were "no differences between us now."

Khaled Meshal with Mahmud Abbas.

Meanwhile, an official at the Israeli Prime Minister's Office said the news "increases the distance to peace" - a relatively moderate response.

The reconciliation deal is meant to end a bitter and sometimes violent feud between Hamas and Fatah. The two movements have never been close allies, but their relations soured dramatically when Hamas defeated Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian elections. A short-lived national unity government fell apart in June 2007, when Hamas chased security officials loyal to Abbas and the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza and seized sole control of the Strip.

The details of yesterday's meeting were reported by Abbas envoy Azzam al-Ahmed and Hamas official Izzat al-Rishq. They said the two sides had agreed that the presidential and parliamentary elections would be held "on time," but they did not mention a date.

According to reports over the past few weeks, the sides have agreed for the elections to be held by the end of May. But while Ahmed and Rishq spoke of an agreement about a "new leadership framework," the widely expected announcement of a new government was not forthcoming. The new "framework" is to be an entity that includes Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Palestine Liberation Organization, in response to demands by Hamas.

Despite the positive atmosphere that spokesmen for both organizations described, it seems the rift in Palestinian politics is still far from closing. Two key steps toward a genuine reconciliation - an agreed date for elections and the naming of a prime minister for a transitional government - are still not in the offing. For now it appears that neither side wants elections before May and that Hamas is waiting for the results of Egypt's upcoming elections.

One of the greatest obstacles to Palestinian unity is the issue of the detainees that each side holds. Abbas is aware that Hamas expects him to release the 150 or so members of the organization sitting in PA jails as a confidence-building measure.

But he must also know that releasing the men would harm security cooperation between the PA and Israel and set off Israeli operations throughout the West Bank. Each Palestinian organization suspects the other of being less than sincere about seeking reconciliation, putting any unity agreement and its implementation in doubt.

Back in Israel, the PMO was more moderate on the day's news than certain cabinet members.

"Any increase in proximity between the PA and Abu Mazen [Abbas] on one side and Hamas on the other increases the distance to peace," the PMO official said. At 8 P.M. Israel's inner cabinet met to discuss the possible formation of a Palestinian unity government and to hear the continuation of the annual intelligence assessment.

"The meeting in Cairo still seems like a ceremonial event only, and it's still unclear whether the sides will form a unity government," the PMO official added.

Speaking earlier at a press conference with Romanian Prime Minister Emil Boc, Netanyahu said he hoped the PA would "stop the reconciliation process with Hamas and choose to distance itself from unilateral moves."

The PMO's attempt to play down the Abbas-Meshal meeting is thought to be linked to Netanyahu's desire to gain political breathing space so he can release within a few days the Palestinian tax money he froze several weeks ago. Netanyahu is under heavy international pressure to release the funds.

Some cabinet members were far harsher in condemning the Cairo meeting. "The implication of Abu Mazen's declaration that he no longer has any difference of opinion with Hamas is that he accepts all the terror methods used by Hamas against Israel and that he supports the killing of innocent civilians," Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein said.

"From today the PA is a terror organization for all intents and purposes, and the result of its cooperation with Hamas will be a disaster for the Palestinian people and the entire region."

According to Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, "The demonstration of Palestinian unity brings an end to direct peace talks. It's impossible to talk with a government a central part of which acts to destroy Israel."