Palestinians leaders go to Mecca for last-ditch talks on forging coalition government

Tuesday, February 6th 2007, 6:35 am
By: News On 6

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ Saudi Arabia brought the two main Palestinian leaders to Mecca, Islam's holiest city, on Tuesday to try to end their bloody conflict and complete a power-sharing agreement on a coalition government.

Before Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas left for the talks with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, he warned that failure in Mecca ``would mean the deterioration of the internal situation and igniting civil war,'' the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar quoted him as saying. ``The word 'failure' is forbidden.''

King Abdullah, Crown Prince Sultan and Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal flew to Jiddah, less than an hour's drive from Mecca, to welcome the Palestinians, who were expected to arrive late Tuesday. In recent months, Egypt, Syria and Qatar have all tried and failed to end the violent power struggle.

The presence of the king and princes showed the kingdom's determination to repair the rift between Abbas and Mashaal, who will lead the talks. Street battles between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah party killed more than 30 people and wounded more than 200 others in four days of fighting that ended in a cease-fire on Sunday evening.

Even as Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh left the Gaza Strip for the talks on Tuesday, Hamas and Fatah security officials fired at each other for 10 minutes at the Gaza-Egypt crossing terminal. No injuries were reported.

Haniyeh told reporters that his Hamas delegation was determined to reach agreement.

``Nobody wants the battling to continue,'' he said after crossing into Egypt. ``The only beneficiary is Israel.''

The Saudis are pointedly convening the talks in a guest palace overlooking the Kaaba, the black-draped cubic shrine toward which all Muslims turn when they pray.

Abdullah made clear he hoped the setting would have an influence when he issued a statement to the Palestinian community in Saudi Arabia.

``I hope that the Palestinian brothers hear your demand, and that they will not leave the sacred land without a commitment before God to stop fighting and bloodshed,'' the king said.

Kadoura Fares, a former Fatah Cabinet minister who met Mashaal last week, told Israel's Army Radio that Fatah and Hamas had overcome almost all the obstacles to forming a coalition government during talks in recent weeks.

``Hamas is willing to sign an agreement ... that the (new) government respect all the agreements that the PLO signed with Israel,'' Fares said.

The sides have been deadlocked since Hamas won the Palestinian elections in January 2006 and took control of the Cabinet and legislature. The West promptly imposed a financial blockade on the Palestinian government because of Hamas' refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel and previous agreements signed between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel.

Abbas, a moderate who was elected separately in 2005, started negotiating with Hamas last fall in the hope that a coalition government would enable the West to lift the boycott and allow the return of aid money. By then, thousands of Palestinians had gone unpaid for months.

The talks broke down repeatedly, and street battles between gunmen of the two parties erupted with increasing frequency in Gaza. The differences focused on the program of the proposed coalition and who would control the security forces.

Ostensibly, the gaps are small _ in the case of the program only a single word. Abbas has insisted Hamas promise to ``commit'' to previous PLO agreements, including interim peace deals with Israel. Hamas is only willing to say it ``respects'' such agreements.

The underlying problem appears to be a deep mistrust and unwillingness to share power.