Palestinian Rivals Meet On Unity Government

Representatives of the major Palestinian factions are in Cairo trying to revive prospects for a national unity government.

The latest effort to bring together the Islamist Hamas faction, which is in charge of the Gaza Strip, and rival Fatah, which controls the West Bank, comes at a rocky time.

Israel seems to be shifting further to the right after its recent elections. Hard-line Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal has called for a third armed uprising against Israel and wants to replace the Palestine Liberation Organization, the long-standing umbrella organization once led by Yasser Arafat.

Meanwhile, the West and some Arab states cling to President Mahmoud Abbas as the only legitimate Palestinian leader, though his term expired in January and his popularity at home is plummeting.

Palestinian Question Muddied

To a casual observer, it might seem obvious that Palestinians need a unified front if they are to have any hope of success in dealing with the much stronger Israelis. But Emad Gad at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies says the Palestinian question is muddied by the involvement of regional and international players.

He says Hamas is evolving, with the leadership in Gaza moving toward what he calls a more practical or realistic approach to dealing with Israel, while Mashaal and other Hamas exiles in Syria maintain an uncompromising stance. Gad says this process is still playing out, and there will be setbacks.

"Syria and Iran will not allow for Hamas to convert to a realistic movement," Gad says. "Because where is [the] political bureau of Hamas? In Damascus. From where [does] the money come? From Tehran. So it's very difficult now. And Khaled Mashaal will resist minimizing his influence."

Gad says Syria and Iran are using the Palestinian cause for their own ends, but the same could be said of Western support for Abbas and his technocratic government in Ramallah.

The United States, and to some extent Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have made clear their unease with the results of the Palestinian elections in 2006 that brought Hamas to power. Supporters say what their movement wants now is recognition, and that's precisely what Washington and other international players are not prepared to grant, at least not without extracting concessions that Hamas isn't prepared to yield — such as recognizing Israel and renouncing violence.

Microcosm of Arab Disputes

Analysts say Palestinian disunity is in some ways a microcosm of the fissures in the rest of the Arab world, but Mustafa al-Ani at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai says he hasn't given up hope.

"I think Arab unity is still alive. Suffering, yes, as usual," Ani says. "The principle in the Arab unity was to save the Palestinians. And this is a common ground, which every Arab agrees on. The question of how to achieve that, and how to handle the crisis, this is where the disputes emerge."

This latest round of talks is starting with modest goals: to improve the atmosphere with gestures such as releasing detainees and to set the stage for further talks. But some officials will be watching for signals that Hamas, having suffered heavily from the Israeli military assault in Gaza, may now see the benefits of reconciliation. If nothing else, they argue, more than $1 billion in reconstruction aid might reach Gaza that much sooner if donors leery of Hamas could send it via a unity government.

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