Abbas says meeting with Meshal 'fruitful'

By Avi Issacharoff

Haaretz

Shvat 4, 5767

Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal held talks in Damascus on Sunday to try to ease the Palestinian political crisis and internecine fighting.

Abbas called the talks "fruitful" and said negotiations over the formation of a Palestinian unity government would continue.

Meshal said disagreements with Abbas remain, but will be sorted out through continued dialogue.

Hamas and Fatah officials confirmed Sunday that Abbas and Meshal would meet, following Syrian intervention to ensure that the meeting would go ahead.

Izzat al-Rishq, a senior Hamas official, said the Islamist group did not expect Sunday's talks to result in an agreement on a unity government.

"The main difference on the government's manifesto persists. The meeting will convene to affirm that the two sides are committed to continue dialogue and reject the use of violence and spilling of Palestinian blood," he said.

Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, an ally of Abbas, told reporters: "Our message is forbidding infighting, stopping instigation and the formation of a national unity government."

"The meeting between Abu Mazen [Abbas] and Abu al-Waleed [Meshal] will take place tonight," Fatah official Saeb Erekat told reporters after Abbas met Syrian Vice President Farouk Shara.

"Our message is forbidding infighting, stopping instigation and the formation of a national unity government."

The meeting between the two scheduled for late Saturday was postponed after officials failed to reconcile differences over a unity government and how it would deal with key Western demands.

"We are seeing Syrian efforts at the highest level to convene this meeting," Hamas politburo member Izzat al-Rishq said. "Syrian officials are doing their best to bring the views of both sides closer."

Shara held separate talks with both Abbas and Meshal on Sunday, witnesses said.

A senior Hamas official said earlier Sunday the crucial meeting would not take place and blamed the moderate Abbas for the breakdown of the talks.

"The possibility of a meeting today [Sunday] has become nonexistent," said Moussa Abu Marzuk, deputy head of Hamas' politburo.

Hamas had shown a lot of "flexibility" in trying to resolve disputes between the two factions, but "external factors... caused this latest crisis," he said.

Division of power

Also Sunday, sources involved in the Palestinian unity government talks told Haaretz that Hamas has agreed to the appointment of an independent interior minister.

Fatah and Hamas negotiators also agreed to the appointment of Fatah's Salam Fayed as finance minister and Ziad Abu Amr as foreign minister. Hamas had initially wanted to keep the interior portfolio, which controls the security forces, for itself.

Abbas warned Saturday that if the unity talks with Hamas failed, he would call new elections.

"Either there will be a unity government or there will be elections," he said.

Abbas did meet Saturday with Syrian President Bashar Assad, who expressed his support for Palestinian unity.