Palestinians Hold Reconciliation Talks In Cairo

Hamas and Fatah are pledging to continue negotiations toward an interim Palestinian government that would bring the rival movements together. The pledge came after two days of talks in Cairo. Little substance emerged from the discussions, but the pledge itself represents some measure of progress toward ending bitter disputes dividing Palestinians.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Two leading Palestinian groups have been meeting on neutral ground. Fatah is the group that controls the West Bank. Hamas is in control of Gaza. And now they're trying to create what they describe as an interim unity government. They held initial talks in Cairo, which is where we found NPR's Peter Kenyon.

Peter, welcome back to the program.

PETER KENYON: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why would it be important - why is it seen as important to bring these two groups back together?

KENYON: Well, this unity government, if it happens, will have two main goals. One is to channel the international reconstruction aid that's waiting to go into the devastated areas of the Gaza Strip after Israel's recent military operation, and also to prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza.

Now, these are kind of intertwined. Huge amounts of money are being pledged for Gaza. There's a donor's conference here in Egypt on Monday. But a lot of key donors, the Saudis, the Americans and others, won't give to Hamas. They want to give to Fatah, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. However, that brings in the election question, because Abbas's term expired last month and he's also far less popular at home in the wake of the Israeli-Hamas fighting.

So for all these reasons and many more, creating a unified Palestinian leadership for both the West Bank and Gaza is critical.

INSKEEP: Granting some of the difficulties you've mentioned, there does seem to be a lot of motivation to get this done. What makes it hard?

KENYON: Well, again, there's a long list. Where do we begin? First, there's a lot of hard feeling left over between Hamas and Fatah after the violent clashes down in Gaza when Hamas took control in 2007.

There's also a kind of evolution going on inside the Islamist-Hamas movement. The Gaza leadership is sounding more pragmatic, which to the West means more willing to deal with Israel, while the Hamas leaders in exile in Syria, for instance, continue to take a much harder line.

These divisions make it harder for Hamas to make decisions. This is a process still in the works. And then you add the pressure from outside - U.S., Europe, Saudi Arabia, even Egypt - are pushing hard to prop up President Abbas and Fatah, despite their sinking popularity at home.

Now, meanwhile, analysts say Syria and Iran are using Hamas as a lever to get themselves inserted into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for their own reasons. And they're doing that by pushing a hard line, urging resistance against occupation and not negotiation.

And then finally, Hamas want to abolish or reform the PLO, which is a highly symbolic umbrella organization that was once headed by Yasser Arafat. So that's technically difficult to do.

So there's a lot of reason to do this and they want to finish by the end of March. All the Palestinian faction leaders say it will be a tough go.

INSKEEP: Peter Kenyon, even though there are some difficulties here, I want to look ahead to the next step if there were one. If you end up with unified Palestinian leadership again, the next step presumably would be turning toward Israel and getting the peace process going again. But isn't that, itself, going to be something that would be rather difficult to do?

KENYON: Yeah, you could say the hills just keep getting steeper, Steve. Hillary Clinton is heading out this weekend on her first Mid East tour as secretary of state. She'll be in Israel and the West Bank next week with envoy George Mitchell. And one thing that is bound to be noticed, once again, is she'll continue one aspect of the Bush administration policy by meeting with Abbas and Fatah but not with Hamas leaders.

If there were a unity government that problem could be avoided. But with the right wing apparently ascendant for the moment, in Israel, any talks in the near future between the Palestinians and the Israelis will probably have to focus on small incremental ideas like a lasting cease fire, as the world is basically just waiting to see what line the new Israeli government's going to take.

INSKEEP: Peter, thanks very much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Cairo.

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