Rival Palestinians leaders meet in Mecca for talks

Wednesday, February 7th 2007, 6:00 am
By: News On 6

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ Rival Palestinian leaders on Wednesday began open-ended talks in Islam's holy city optimistic that they could reach an agreement to end their bloody street battles and resume the peace process with Israel.

The summit is viewed as possibly the last chance to avoid civil war between the feuding Palestinian factions, which have failed to maintain several cease-fire agreements.

``We came here to agree and we have no other option but to agree,'' the exiled leader of the hardline Hamas group, Khaled Mashaal, told the inaugural ceremony.

Saudi King Abdullah arranged the talks between Mashaal and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the moderate Fatah party. But the Saudis did not attend the discussions, having repeatedly said there would be no outside interference in the negotiations.

Still the king's sponsorship of the negotiations and his choice of venue _ a palace overlooking the revered Islamic shrine, the Kaaba _ show the Saudis strong desire to produce a breakthrough in the Palestinian conflict, which Arabs have long accused their leaders of neglecting.

Abbas said he and his Fatah delegation had told all their supporters that ``we will not leave this holy place until we have agreed on everything good, with God's blessing.''

``I tell our people to expect good news, and I hope this (meeting) will not be mere words in the air,'' he said.

Referring to the gunfights that killed more than 30 people in the past week, Mashaal turned to Abbas and said they both had to tell their supporters to respect the truce that took effect on Sunday.

``We want to give a message to the nation, and the world, to create a positive atmosphere for these talks,'' Mashaal said.

In a sign of the general hope that the Mecca talks will deliver a breakthrough, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced Tuesday that he, Abbas and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will meet on Feb. 19 in Jerusalem.

The Saudi king held separate talks with the two delegations after their arrival in Jiddah on Tuesday. Earlier Wednesday, Mashaal, Palestinian Prime Ministers Ismail Haniyeh and other members of the Hamas delegation called on Abbas in Jiddah.

Hamas delegate Abdel Rahman Zaidan described the meeting as ``positive'' and said it was clear Abbas shares with Hamas the desire to reach an agreement.

Hamas and Fatah have held numerous discussions on a coalition government, but talks have foundered on the composition of the government and its stance on agreements signed with Israel. Hamas has long refused to recognize the peace accords Israel signed with the Palestine Liberation Organization, of which Fatah is the major member.

Beyond ending Palestinian infighting, a deal on power-sharing is vital for any resumption of the peace process. Israel has refused any talks since Hamas formed a government following January 2006 elections, and the West imposed a financial blockade on the Palestinian government because of Hamas's refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

Abbas, a moderate who was elected separately, is hoping for an agreement on a coalition government in which Hamas will give some degree of recognition to previous peace agreements with Israel to allow a resumption of talks and an end to the embargo.

But Hamas is worried about where a Mecca agreement might lead in negotiations with Israel.

``Who can guarantee that we will not be making a mistake if we give concessions, as the PLO has done,'' a member of the Hamas delegation, Mohammed Nazal, said in a phone interview from Jiddah.

``Will we get an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem is its capital?'' he said, referring to the long-cherished goals of both Fatah and Hamas.

The talks are also a test of Saudi diplomacy. Normally the kingdom prefers to work behind the scenes, but it is taking an assertive role in trying to resolve the Palestinian conflict, as well as the war in Iraq and the dispute in Lebanon.

The Saudis fear that the Shiite-Sunni tension reflected in the Iraqi and Lebanese disputes could erupt and destabilize the whole region. The kingdom itself has a significant Shiite minority.

The Saudis also want to stem the influence of mainly Shiite Iran, its longtime rival, which has a hand in all three conflicts. Iran has funneled millions of dollars to Hamas and Hezbollah and has enormous influence among the Shiite parties in Iraq. In a sign of its concern, Saudi Arabia has even opened contacts with Iran to cooperate in easing tensions in Iraq and Lebanon.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia sees the revival of the Israeli-Arab peace process as vital to calming the Mideast.

``What's going on in the land of Palestine serves only the enemies of the Islamic nation,'' the king told Abbas on Tuesday, according to the Saudi News Agency.