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Representatives of the major Palestinian factions are in Cairo trying to revive prospects for a national unity government. The Fatah movement controls the West Bank while Hamas is in charge of the Gaza Strip. Arab leaders say Palestinian unity is essential for making real progress in talks with Israel, but as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Cairo, reconciling the Palestinian factions may prove as elusive as a Palestinian state.

PETER KENYON: The latest effort to bring the Islamist Hamas faction and the rival Fatah together 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 PLO, 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, even though his term expired in January and his popularity at home is plummeting.

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 as always 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 and 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.

EMAD GAD: Syria and Iran will not allow for Hamas to convert to a realistic movement because where is political (unintelligible) 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.

KENYON: 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 technocrat government in Ramallah.

America 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 that what Hamas 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.

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 hasn't given up hope.

MUSTAFA AL: I think Arab unity is still alive. Suffering, yes, as usual. The principle in the Arab unity wants to save the Palestinians, and this is a common ground which every Arab agrees on. The question how to achieve that, how to handle the crisis, this is where the disputes emerge.

KENYON: 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.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.

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