The Hamas chief in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, may not have been invited to attend the Annapolis peace conference, but the group's presence there will be felt precisely because of its absence. The low expectations on the outcome of the conference, and its failure, may serve as a platform for renewed negotiations between Fatah and Hamas. Once the summit is over, it will be impossible to continue ignoring Hamas. Hamas and Fatah are still clashing on the ground, but Egypt is preparing for a meeting of representatives of the two Palestinian factions, with Saudi Arabia's blessing.
Ten days ago, Haniyeh announced that mediation efforts were being carried out by an Arab country he did not specify. That same day, Nabil Amr, political adviser to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, denied the existence of such talks. But behind the scenes, the Yemeni foreign minister won the support of Saudi Arabia and Egypt to try to mediate between the two groups. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak instructed Omar Suleiman, the head of Egyptian intelligence, to ask Fatah and Hamas to present a list of demands so that an agreed framework for negotiations could be prepared.
The agreement being drafted is likely to be based on the general principles summed up in September between Fatah's Jibril Rajoub and leading Hamas politburo member Mohammed Nazal. Egyptian sources say Hamas is willing to agree to relinquish the security and presidential buildings in the Gaza Strip - which it took over in June - as well as the Rafah crossing, to the temporary control of the Egyptians. After an agreement is signed, the buildings would be transferred by Egypt to the Palestinian security forces, which would be under the authority of a national unity government. But Egypt is reluctant to adopt this proposal because it is not interested in deploying its security forces - an overt show of control - in Palestinian territory.
However, differences between Fatah and Hamas are considerable, and Fatah sources say that "the two sides are a lot further apart from the points of agreement reached in the Mecca agreement [which established a short-lived national unity government in February]. However, the same source said there will be no way around it in the end: Fatah will have to talk with Hamas or Abbas will not be able to offer any solution to the people in the Gaza Strip. Hamas, for its part, has stated in public that it is willing to hold talks with Fatah. In interviews, Khaled Meshal, the Damascus-based head of the Hamas politburo, said solutions are being considered for dialogue and reconciliation with Fatah.
In Egypt, too, they feel that Abbas will have to talk with Hamas, but not before the Annapolis summit. For now he recognizes that any statement on talks with Hamas may lead to a toughening of the Israeli position, and may disqualify him from being considered "a partner." Abbas, who believes that the Annapolis summit will not contribute to the implementation of the Palestinian ambitions, would like to leave the conference without being blamed for its failure. This assessment is also shared by the Hamas leadership, which one of Haniyeh's aides (and contrary to Israel's estimates) says "will grant Abbas the calm that will allow him to conduct the kind of internal Palestinian dialogue after Annapolis that Hamas would like."
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