Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders joined the Palestine Liberation Organization leaders in Cairo on Thursday, in the first move of its kind to join the PLO and unite the long-divided Palestinian leadership.
The officials, including Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shalah, decided to hold general elections for the Palestinian Authority leadership in May 2012.
They formed a committee to prepare the elections to the PLO leadership. The elections for presidency, parliament and Palestinian National Council mean Hamas and Islamic Jihad will effectively join the PLO, making it the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
Hamas has agreed to join the PLO before, but always conditioned the move on reserving 40 percent of the PNC seats for Hamas delegates. The PLO has repeatedly rejected this demand.
The committee decided to form a central election panel, whose members will be appointed by Meshal and Abbas, to supervise the elections.
It decided to put off the discussion about forming a unity government until after January 26, 2012, which will mark three months from the day the international Quartet presented its initiative to resume the Israel-Palestinian peace talks.
According to the initiative, all sides must refrain from taking provocative unilateral steps, to make it possible to renew the talks and enable each side to present its position regarding the borders and security.
The Palestinian Authority reportedly intends to say it refrained from making unilateral moves for 90 days, while Israel continued the construction in the West Bank settlements and allowed the settlers to carry out violent acts against Palestinians.
It also intends to say the head of the PLO's negotiation team, Saeb Erekat, submitted the Palestinians' positions about borders and security to the Quartet, while Israel has not. In these circumstances, Abbas can set up the Palestinian unity government without appearing to be making a provocative move, Palestinian sources said.
On Thursday, senior Fatah and Hamas sources said that by the end of January the two sides will agree on the members of the unity government, whose term will last just over three months, until the elections. Fatah and Hamas will attempt to decide on the next prime minister and independent ministers, who will not be members of either faction, ahead of the elections. They also agreed the Palestinian parliament will resume operation in February, when the committee preparing the elections will meet again.
One of the main obstacles to the reconciliation is the Palestinians' demand to hold the elections for the PA institutions in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Palestinians have asked Egypt to persuade Israel to agree, but Jerusalem is expected to object if Hamas participates in the elections. Consequently, Hamas and Fatah may hold Israel responsible for not holding the elections, Palestinian sources said.
Another major obstacle is the PNC elections, in which Palestinians worldwide are to take part. This requires registering all the Palestinians who want to vote in their various countries and hope they are allowed to cast their ballot in the PLO's mission offices in their country of residence.
The PNC will have 350 delegates, 150 from the territories and 200 from the diaspora.
Fatah and Hamas leaders agreed that a special committee headed by PNC Chairman Salim Zanoun will discuss how to conduct these elections.
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