RAMALLAH − Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told a group of Israeli politicians and business people yesterday in Ramallah that the new Palestinian unity government will be responsible for two issues only: preparing for elections within a year from the signing of the reconciliation agreement, and the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip.

Abbas told the delegation representing a group promoting an Israeli peace initiative that Fatah, meaning Abbas himself would be in charge of policy and that he would not allow violence. He would continue to maintain the principle of a single authority and rule of law, and negotiations could continue with Israel, he said.

Despite Abbas’ attempt to reassure the Israeli delegation and decision-makers in Washington, many questions remain. Representatives of all the Palestinian factions are expected to sign the reconciliation agreement this Wednesday in Cairo, and a few days later ‏(before May 10‏), an official ceremony is to include Abbas and the head of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Meshal.

But it is still unclear what the direction of the unity government and what its powers will be, and the nature of the relationship between Hamas and Fatah, and of the new government and Israel.

In a related development, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi announced yesterday that Egypt will soon be opening its border crossing with the Gaza Strip at Rafah on a permanent basis. ‏

Not only do Israeli intelligence officials not know whether the Palestinian factions really intend to reconcile in the coming days, even Abbas himself and senior Fatah leaders knew nothing about it until very recently.

The move to reconciliation has been almost entirely a Hamas move, backed by Egypt. But why would Abbas decide to go for reconciliation with Hamas now, with its popularity at its height, and he needs broad international support ahead of his approach to the United Nations General Assembly?

The answer is that he had no choice. Abbas himself, smiling and relaxed as usual, told the Israelis yesterday that Fatah signed an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation agreement on October 14 2009, which Hamas had refused to do.

He said that only Wednesday, Fatah representatives were invited to a meeting with Hamas and Egyptian intelligence, where they were informed of Hamas’ willingness to sign. Under those circumstances, Abbas said, he could not go back on his word.

Gaza Strip Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar told Channel 10 yesterday that Abbas knew nothing about the reconciliation agreement. He said that Hamas had met with Egyptian intelligence in March, and after a round of consultations, Hamas told the Egyptians that talks could go forward.

Zahar insisted that Hamas was united in its move toward a unity government, However, it is still unclear how widespread that agreement is. For example, even if Hamas’ military chief in Gaza, Ahmed Jabari, agrees to stop missile fire at Israel until Palestinian elections next year, it is hard to imagine him agreeing to disarm thousands of militants if Fatah wins a majority.

A Palestinian commentator present at yesterday’s meeting said he believed the Palestinian territories might soon begin to resemble the Kurdish region of Iraq in that “there would be one government but with limited authority and every group would manage the security in its own region.”

At one end of the table, business leader Idan Ofer said at yesterday’s meeting that he had recently opened a bank account in Ramallah and wanted to help the Palestinian economy as much as possible. But at the other end of the table was the PA’s minister of civilian affairs, Hussein a-Sheikh, who is in charge of security and civilian coordination with Israel. Like many other Fatah officials, a-Sheikh cannot yet know how such coordination will look in a post-unity era.

Abbas declined to respond to a question on this issue, saying that he did not want to hurt the reconciliation agreement in the making.

Abbas also declined to respond to a question from Haaretz about the political prisoners held by each side, of which there are said to be hundreds. Most are not accused of terror attacks but rather of illegal possession of weapons or incitement. Still, the release of Hamas prisoners in the West Bank could create a new reality in terms of security for Israel as well as the PA.

Abbas said the PA had no political prisoners, perhaps hinting that the PA did not intend to release them. Still, it is doubtful Hamas will agree to a reconciliation that does not include a release of its prisoners.

At a joint press conference Wednesday night with Fatah representative Azzam al-Ahmed, senior Hamas leader Musa Abu Marzouk announced that “we have reached the end of a painful period for the Palestinian people.” But he may have spoken too soon. A few dozen Palestinians gathered at Unknown Soldier Square in Gaza to celebrate the end of the split, and the Hamas police dispersed them violently.